The Forgotten Revolution
There are moments in the history of a nation that don’t make it to the grand narrative officially called the history of the nation, but have the power, nonetheless, to change or precipitate future events. Such a moment shook Bombay for six days between February 18 and 23, 1946 and is said to have hastened the departure of the British from our shores. The British called it the naval mutiny. We call it an insurrection, not only because it was viewed as a struggle for independence; but also because it swept through all the Indian ports up to Karachi and brought Bombay’s industrial and textile workers out in support of it.
Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, an installation by Vivan Sundaram and Ashish Rajadhyaksha at the Coomaraswamy Hall, CSMVS, unravels the diverse strands of thought, intent and action that went into this historic event, intertwining them into a complex collage of text, sound and speech to create a layered narrative. In 1998, Sundaram made a site-specific installation in the Durbar Hall of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, which analysed the history of colonial exploitation visually through objects like a railway track, jute bags and teachests. Significant in themselves, these artefacts gained further meaning when seen in juxtaposition with the expansive lawns outside. In the present show, the outside has no function. We are closeted in a gallery in the centre of which stands an enormous steel-and-aluminium structure shaped like a ship’s hull. We will soon sit on facing benches inside the structure, immersed in darkness occasionally split by beams of light. We will hear the beat of waves, the sounds of textile machinery, lathes and morse code signals. Against this aural backdrop we will hear the recorded voices of actors playing the dramatis personae who shaped or witnessed the action.
But before that, we study the mural on the gallery wall. It comprises newspaper cuttings that report and debate the circumstances of the insurrection, the initial rumblings, the action and the denouement. It is worth giving oneself sufficient time to read through them to get a grip on what triggered the insurrection and how our leaders responded to it. Somewhere on this wall is a photograph that chills. Bodies of men who had fought together and were killed together fill the frame from end to end. The photograph will return to us later in the ship’s hull when we hear an Urdu poem read out in a female voice with the refrain, “Whose blood is it? Who has died?” And again when a male voice describes what happened on a street in the mill district of the city. The street was thronged with people. A British army truck came round the corner. The crowd threw itself on the ground. A gun from the truck fired on them, wounding some, killing some.
Somewhere in the collage of voices, I recognise Alaknanda Samarth’s distinctive timbre. Slowly, neutrally, she reads out a list of men’s names, pronouncing each syllable carefully. The names belong to the heroes of the insurrection. Signalers, stokers, sweepers, they stood up as one against the might of Empire. There were 78 striking ships in the harbour with some 20,000 sailors on board, led by men in charge of the Talwar, the Signal Training Establishment on shore. The signalers called for the silencing of signals. Within half an hour of the call, “the whole British Empire went silent.” A male voice tells us he was in the bar of the Taj Mahal Hotel overlooking the harbour. The ships’ officers had been sent ashore. The sailors were now in charge; and the ships’ guns were trained on the hotel.
We hear the voices of the Indian National Congress leaders cautioning the sailors and making promises. The brave sailors believed them and laid down arms. The British officer in charge of the fleet reports what happened. His voice bubbles with idiotic, infuriating laughter, “…they all grinned sheepishly at me … said three cheers for the Saab and this was the end of the mutiny.”
Yes. It was the end. But while it lasted, it had shaken the Empire. A room on the other side of the ship’s hull displays a flurry of urgent telegrams that flew between the seat of Empire and its men in the colony, seeking and giving information. Questions had to be answered in Parliament.
Meanings of Failed Action demands your full participation. Questions remain, but there is one certainty — you are not likely to forget the 1946 insurrection again.
Published On : 23-03-2017