Truth is just another story.
— Marlon James
THE DEFINITIVE article in the title of David Subran's exhibition gives us one way of reading the show. The Story suggests one story, one truth, one history, one clear narrative. Yet the thing about stories is there are many. Professor Bridget Brereton reminds us how, centuries after the fact, we can still find new ways of looking at East Indian indentureship under British imperial rule. There are narratives and there are counter-narratives. Always, it is impossible to capture the entire thing.
"These images danced in my head seeking escape into the wider world," Subran says in an essay accompanying his show. His paintings are kitsch, naive, intuitive, innocent, child-like. The palette, unmistakably crayola. The childish quality is offset by the grave subject matter. One painting deals with the fate of Indian mutineers. The chosen technique of execution: prisoners were tied to cannons and blown apart.
Are complex events being broken down into digestible portions? Does the subject matter itself not demand a reckoning with how little we have grown? Is there a yearning to return to a moment when the atrocities shown were just things dreamt up by kids playing with crayons?
Like Kitch, Anthony Joseph's recent portrait of Lord Kitchener, Subran opts to give us snapshots of a story still being written. These are portraits that add up to a larger picture. And however complicated and nuanced the various strands of the narrative may be, it's harrowing. It stands as a powerful counter to forces seeking to build walls. In her essay on this show, Professor Patricia Mohammed observes an impulse to record "the haunting call and response between migrants and their homeland". Each painting, depicting a specific moment in history, is a beam. Each beam is a part of a bridge linking continents, cultures, and histories. See for yourself. Drawing from text accompanying Subran's paintings, here are some of the girders:
SEPOY MUTINYIn 1857 the Indian members of the British occupational forces revolted against the British occupiers, at Lucknow. This revolt was eventually quelled by the British in 1858, but only after much blood was shed. Reprisals by the British in this area of northern India was brutal and forced many people to emigrate.BLOWING UP MUTINEERSSome of the captured mutineers were tied to cannons and blown apart in order to send a chilling message to other Indians of the horrible fate that awaited those who dared to challenge British rule.THE RANI OF JHANSIThe queen of Jhansi was born Manikarnika Tambe. Following the death of her husband, the Rajah, the British seized the Rani’s property, citing the doctrine of lapse, which disinherited widows without a male heir. The British seized her palace, but the Rani, fondly called Lakshmibhai, amassed an army and joined the mutineers. She was eventually shot and killed by the British on June 17th 1868.DROUGHT AND FAMINEDuring the 19th century in particular, India endured many periods of drought. One of these periods led to the great famine of 1876-1878 that affected the Deccan. In 1873-1874 there was famine in Bihar, and later in 1896-1897 there was famine in the north of India. Because subsistence farming was the norm, many people suffered and were inclined to migrate.
ZAMINDAR OPPRESSIONThe Zamindars were hereditary land owners who had the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Mughal rulers, and later on, for the British. Some Zamindars regularly increased the taxes until it became impossible for the peasants to pay, and their land was sold by public auction, leaving them without resources for survival. Migration then became a viable form of escape from this oppression.RECRUITER - ARKATIAThe growing concerns about slavery and its eventual abolishment, created a shortage of cheap manual labour in the West Indies. After a false start in 1836, on 16th November, 1844, the British government legalised emigration from India to Jamaica, British Guiana, and Trinidad. Potential emigrants were recruited by licensed recruiters, who hired informal recruiters (arkatias) to go into the villages. The arkatias often spun tales of the great wealth to be obtained in the West Indies, in order to entice the illiterate villagers.LEAVING THE ANCESTRAL HOMEThe arkatias screened potential emigrants for health defects and they then left their villages for the nearest sub-depot for official processing. It must have been particularly heart rending for many of these villagers who had never left the village before, to now leave their families and venture into the unknown. However, many would-be emigrants could not have conceived of the vast distances they would have to travel, and the mighty ocean that they would have to cross.PASSING THE SURHA TAALSome would-be emigrants travelled over many days by bullock cart to the subdepot. Bansdih in the district of Ballia was a typical village. On the way to the sub-depot at Varanasi (now Benares), they had to pass near the Surha Taal, a marshy lake, that teemed with wild life and migratory birds.ASSENTING TO INDENTURESHIPThe regulations of the East India Company stipulated that the would-be emigrant and his agent must appear before a local magistrate designated by the government of British India. This event often took place at a sub-depot. The terms of indenture were stated on a written document, to which the would-be emigrant usually gave assent by a thumb-print. The length of indenture was five years and was renewable for another five years.THE DASASWAMEDH GHATA sub-depot was located at the holy city of Varanasi near the Dasaswamedh ghat. After completion of the indentureship formalities, the indentured emigrants would be placed on a boat that sailed down the river Ganga, where the ship that would take them to the West Indies was docked.BOARDING AT CALCUTTAUsually, the indentured Indians spent about four to seven days behind the walls of the Calcutta depot, before boarding the ship. Occasionally, members of family left behind could be heard calling out to a particular indentured person to come back to the family. These calls often received no response. The ships carried large amounts of water in kegs to provide for a journey that could take up to three months.BELOW DECKS- FAMILY QUARTERSAt first, sailing ships built of teak were used, but by 1880 wooden ships were entirely replaced by iron sailing ships. On one ship, The Main, the emigrants were housed below decks, with single emigrant men at the front, married couples in the middle and single women in the back. There were deaths on almost every voyage. In 1895, 109 emigrants died on the Rhone, but usually the number of deaths varied from 10 to 40.BURIAL AT SEA- THE KALA PANIThe voyage usually took three months, however, with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the duration was greatly reduced. Several voyages took place during the hurricane season. The turbulence and harshness of the Atlantic must have terrified the emigrants, who were generally strangers to the ocean.LANDING AT NELSON ISLANDThe ships that brought the Indians usually stayed out in the stream and the Indians were brought ashore by barges. During the period 1866 to 1917, the Indentured immigrants were quarantined at Nelson Island for a short period before being assigned to plantations.
The Hosay Massacre at the Cross (2019) by David Subran. Oil on canvas. Image at start of post: Dance and Music (2019) by David Subran. Oil on canvas.
The Story by David Subran runs until June 22 at The Frame Shop