When Indian photographer and visual activist Poulomi Basu was 17, her father died. It was sudden and unexpected. Shortly after, when Basu completed her studies, her mother told her to leave their Calcutta home; she wanted her daughter to seek out the choices and opportunities she had always been denied. Inside of her family unit, Basu describes a traditional Indian setting. “On one level it was patriarchal and controlling,” she explains. “I witnessed both violence and the use of ritual as mechanisms of control in my own home, and I saw how my mother and grandmother, as child brides first and then as young widows, were prisoners of culture and belief.” As a result, her career-long commitment to exploring gendered violence and the experiences of women – specifically those in isolated communities and conflict zones – runs deep. Taking heed of her mother’s words, Basu set off for Mumbai to study, before beginning her photographic career as a city reporter for Time Out magazine. It was there she began to develop the themes that have since shaped her life’s work.
Though she has focused largely on the Indian subcontinent, Basu looks for a commonality of experience elsewhere too, offering that “through the prism of one culture we may see another more clearly.” Seeking out “ordinary people who quietly challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of the world in which they live,” she has spent time photographing rural women in armed conflict and the mothers of sons lost to ISIS. Basu believes it is important to rationalise the structures that create these circumstances, “so that we may look beyond traditions and practices to understand what they represent and what injustices are carried out under their guise.” All of the work she makes actively challenges the numerous manifestations and consequences of the belief that women are the second, silenced, subservient sex, and surveys how that condition perpetuates through “religion, traditions and customs” across the world.
And so we come to A Ritual of Exile, the long-term interdisciplinary project Basu has been working on since 2013. The current chapter of this work investigates violence against women in western Nepal through Chhaupadi – a practice that dictates a woman must be banished from her home during her period or post-childbirth, because of the ‘impurity’ of menstrual blood. “Perpetrated under the guise of the Hindu tradition, this practice is hidden, under-reported and unresolved. These women are untouchable and, as a result, this violence takes the form of ‘exiles’, which keeps menstruation shrouded in mystery and taboo, and thus used as a weapon to shame women into subservience,” Basu explains. Menstruating women are not allowed to stay in their beds, touch their families, cook, or have help in any way. The specific nature of exile varies from family to family, and area to area, she explains. “In Accham, the exile takes place within small rooms largely situated below or near the family house, while in the Surkhet district the space of exile is a separate, purpose-built hut.” If women are exiled into separate rooms within their own homes, or if the hut is close to the family house, then that is considered lucky, because in many instances it’s located a long, difficult distance away.
Having experienced some effects of ‘untouchability’ firsthand (she recalls being forbidden from entering the kitchen or attending festivities during her period once she hit puberty), Basu lays out some of the specific and severe dangers faced by these women. She recounts shocking conditions, and explains that undertaking hard, physical labour while in exile is commonplace because they can’t work in the house. She tells us about a woman named Tula (whose story she is telling in a new film) who spends her periods carrying everything from firewood to satellite dishes long distances across rugged terrain, all while studying for her school exams. “Alone in the wildness, these women are at the mercy of the elements; many die, get bitten by snakes, or are asphyxiated from the smoke of a fire, which they use to keep warm in the freezing cold; sometimes the fire catches the hut and they die in the ensuing blaze. Women are raped, and in some extreme cases, abducted, raped and murdered. Those that survive their repeated exiles must spend a lifetime battling with the devastating consequences of PTSD.”
The scenes in Basu’s A Ritual of Exile are powerful, painful depictions of these realities, picturing both the heavy, rolling clouds slung low over the verdant landscape, and the atrocities that take place deep within it. Tinged with recurring red, we see women and young girls in the wilderness – washing, collecting water, reading and sleeping inside of poorly constructed huts. Painkillers and food receptacles are strewn across the earth. One woman lies on the bare ground with no more protection than a mosquito net. Another breastfeeds her child in a shoddy hut as night falls.
Referring to the people in her projects as active collaborators, Basu’s work affords a poignant dignity to the women through inviting them to share their stories in any way they wish. “As such,” she says, “those whose lives we document are participants in the process – they grant access and understand the reasons for their lives being documented after we explain how the work will be used and how widely it will be seen. One woman, who was happy to be documented, asked for her name to be changed; on another occasion I was approached by two women who, having heard what I was doing, also wanted to be included in my documentary.”
Basu has spent considerable time figuring out in which forms her message, and the messages of those she works with, can have the most significant impact across different audiences. As a result, the multifaceted project and its various iterations encompass not just photographs but moving image, audio and immersive VR technologies, too – all mediums she refers to as “mechanisms of awareness.”
“With A Ritual of Exile my approach could be termed ‘transmedia activism’. I wanted the work to be free from editorial constraints and delve deeper to reveal those structures that keep women subservient. But, also, as a woman artist of colour, I did not want the project to conform to somebody else’s idea of what this abuse looks like. Dealing with ‘untouchability’ and the Brahamanical gaze, this is a deeply nuanced project which could never be adequately investigated in a series of pictures alone.” Using virtual reality was a choice specifically designed to aggravate the audience into action: “VR is often criticised for being isolating and claustrophobic but that is exactly what I wanted people to feel, this exactly mirrors the experience of the women forced to practise Chhaupadi. In this, the medium is the message.”
Chhaupadi has been practised for centuries. In 2005, the high court in Nepal banned it, and even more recently it was declared a criminal act. However, it is still largely observed nonetheless. In 2016, the Guardian published some statistics from the grassroots organisation Action Works Nepal, in which it was estimated that 96% of girls in the mid and far-reaching western regions of Nepal are still subjected to it. “Is Chhaupadi really about law and order?” Basu asks. “While this is an important step, making Chhaupadi an issue of law is not going to change the lowly status of women and strike at the roots of patriarchy,” she argues. “In the areas I visited, people are already hiding it, so this law may just drive it deeper underground. While we need a political movement we also need a social movement to change hearts and minds. This work is more important than ever.”
During the time Basu has been putting A Ritual of Exile together, Chhaupadi has gradually made its way into the global consciousness. She credits international news organisations, such as NPR, for showing a commitment to these issues by reporting them to an international audience. “Exploding this issue beyond national frontiers certainly helps to bring more pressure on the Nepalese government to do something about this issue, as does the pressure brought about by civil actors, journalists, artists and activists that have been working on this issue for a number of years.” It remains the case, however, that many instances – particularly those involving sexual violence – still largely go unreported.
Beyond this, Basu believes that the key to changing perceptions here lies in better education “for both girls and boys”, and better infrastructure in terms of simple things like improved toilets and improved sanitation, as well as in scrutinising the underlying beliefs and cultural structures that perpetuate the idea of ‘the untouchable’ and normalise this kind of violence, and inviting victims into a dialogue where they feel empowered to speak out.
At the end of our conversation, Basu recalls a particular encounter with a young girl she met when visiting Surkhet in 2013. Her name is Anjana and she was 15 at the time. “I will never forget the question she asked,” Basu says. “’The Goddesses of knowledge, wealth, and power are all female. If they can all live inside the temple, why can’t we?’”