Soumya Sankar Bose, Where the Birds Never Sing

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Red Turtle Photobook (self-published) (here). Hardcover in a slipcase (21×29 cm), 144 pages, with 68 color and black and white photographs. Includes texts by the artist, Aditya Kumar, and Annu Jalais. In an edition of 600 copies. Design by Barnali Bose. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Where the Birds Never Sing by the Indian photographer Soumya Sankar Bose takes us back to 1979, telling the painful story of what has become known as the Marichjhapi massacre. On January 31, 1979, Bengali refugees on Marichjhapi Island (a tiny little-known isl­and, about 75 km from Kolkata) were brutally evicted, “leading to the subsequent death of thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease.” This took place in independent India, yet was never investigated, and the government apparently destroyed most of the evidence. The exact number of victims is uncertain: the official figure is less than ten people, while locals and survivors claim the number could be as high as ten thousand people killed during that time. Essentially, what we know today is the result of the efforts of a handful of individuals, like Bose, working to bring the story to a wider audience.

Bose spent over two years researching the tragic events and collecting oral histories. Since there are few photographs documenting the events, to tell the story, he invited actors to stage theatrical photographs based on memories of the survivors and the fragmented records of the incident. As a result, the photobook brings together elements of performance and historical reconstruction, creating a visually intriguing and complexly layered story that attempts to bring life to this mostly forgotten tragedy. Bose says that he “wanted to tell the story of the misuse of power, that’s why I haven’t mentioned any of the governments responsible for Marichjhapi.”

The story of the Marichjhapi can only be understood within a wider historical context. In 1947, the Partition of Bengal divided the province into two separate entities: the predominantly Hindu West went to India, and the Muslim-majority East (now Bangladesh) went to Pakistan. Violence ensued, and thousands of displaced and poor refugees from East Bengal fled their homes and migrated to India. They were aggressively resettled in the Dandakaranya region, but the land there was unsuitable for farming, and so people started to move to the uninhabited island of Marichjhapi. However, their arrival there was met with hostility, and many were forced to resettle in other parts of India or return to Dandakaranya. Many people did however manage to stay, but in an effort to force them out, the government stopped all movement in and out of the island, and police forces that were sent to start further evictions opened fire on the people. This complex history is discussed in detail in an essay by Annu Jalais, which is printed in a separate small booklet in white on black (it feels a bit too small for the amount of text it holds).

Where the Birds Never Sing is hosted inside a black slipcase with a theatrical photo of a woman in a bird mask leaning against a tree, and there is an opening on the spine side of the case, a nice design element that is helpful when taking the book out. An image of a hand pointing a gun upward is placed on the cover. The book is rather small yet comfortable to hold, ensuring an intimate experience. A map of Marichjhapi island (sourced from Google maps) is placed on the endpapers, and a photo of the island today, with text on the right placed vertically “for the people who departed on 31 Jan 1979”, opens the narrative. Together with the images on the cover, they immediately set a somber atmosphere for the upcoming narrative.

Bose’s photographs are full of symbolism, alternately cryptic and evocative. Each spread in the book is dedicated to one person, either missing or dead, their name and age in 1979 run at the edge of a page. Each image references a memory or a trauma. A picture of a man, Fakir Roy, standing against a backdrop of a foggy ocean as he tensely gazes outward evokes the act of looking for the missing or going through memories. Another photograph captures a man buried under leaves and branches in the forest – we can only see his head and wide-open eyes, as he is buried by history. A few spreads later, a man stands in the middle of the jungle looking up, matched by another haunting image that depicts an old man lying down in a boat surrounded by dark water and debris. Again and again, Bose offers a somber sense of isolation, tragedy, and grief.

While Bose’s photographs of nature reference the physical place where the tragedy took place, his images of a skull, a burning house, shadows, and megaphones installed on a tree bring in additional layers of dark symbolism. Throughout the book, the photographs are intermingled with oral history accounts, adding the urgent voices of the people to the visual narrative: “that night I fled to the jungle, saving myself from a swarm of bullets”, “I have not seen him from the day the evacuation started”, “Samir Kaku had escaped that night by pretending to be dead amongst the other lifeless bodies. But he was brutally injured.”

Roughly in the middle of the book, there are a number of archival documents: a relief eligibility certificate reproduced with burnt parts, a leaflet distributed to refugees slated to move to Marichjhapi from Mana camp (dated 22 January 1979), a ration card, and many other archival images of people and shots of the island settlement. A reproduction of a letter inquiring about the people of Marichjhapi (dated January 1979) is paired with a portrait of a middle-aged man with closed eyes, creating a striking not-seeing juxtaposition. These documents, that were surprisingly preserved over the years and recently rediscovered, are striking historical evidence for Bose’s narrative.

Following these archival materials, there is a group photo of teachers taken in 1978, printed in black and white on transparency paper. The following image is of a man standing in the same position and dressed just as the teacher was in the center, but now he is alone. As images overlap, this sequence reinforces the sense of loss.

At the very end of the book, a fold out opens to a triptych showing again the woman with a bird mask: she leans against a tree with a mask on, looks right straight at us with the mask placed to the side, and looks up and to her right. While her presence isn’t overtly explained, perhaps she is here protecting the spirits of those affected by the tragedy.

It isn’t easy to recreate and communicate the nuances and emotions of historical events when there is little available material to draw on. In Where the Birds Never Sing, Bose smartly uses the photobook form and a willingness to embrace stylistic drama to unveil this painful story. Leveraging visual metaphors, poetic references, and a splash of inspired imagination, he keeps the memory of the people who were affected vital and alive. Even four decades later, it is essential to remember events like this one, especially given the ongoing refugee crisis around the world, and as India witnesses another wave of violence over a controversial new citizenship law. The only way to prevent history from repeating itself is to acknowledge the hard truths and grim failures of the not so distant past.

Collector’s POV: Soumya Sankar Bose is represented by Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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