Moved by the struggles of ordinary people resisting big business and pliant politicians, Ishan Tankha photographed villagers and insurgents in the forests of Chhattisgarh
This project began after I completed an assignment for a news magazine, and may have been shelved had it not been for a mosquito. Or perhaps several mosquitoes, I’m not sure. Death by mosquito is fairly common in our country, though as with most things the brunt is borne disproportionately by the poor. Back in 2008, after working in the interior villages of Central India, I came home to Delhi with falciparum malaria, typhoid and jaundice. I spent weeks in hospital, coming as close as I ever want to come to confronting my own mortality.
Still, I kept travelling back to the region, Chhattisgarh in particular, to take pictures, to document in some unplanned fashion an ongoing conflict that began as a peasant revolution and evolved into a near-perpetual state of war between indigenous tribes, local people and ‘Maoist insurgents’ on one side, and government and corporations on the other. All along the so-called ‘red corridor’ are desperately poor Adivasis being told that the state cares about bringing them the benefits of ‘development’, while security forces clear their forested homesteads atop the country’s richest deposits of coal, iron and bauxite.
This is, of course, only a partial selection of the many photographs I have taken to try to make sense for myself of an embattled people’s determination to preserve their individual core, to leave some part of themselves unscarred. It attempts to show people that have for years been forced to tread a thin, treacherous line between the state and armed revolutionaries. It follows Adivasis and Maoist soldiers, as they negotiate inhabited, forested and barren landscapes profoundly affected by commercial and political prospectors. The project takes its title from a phrase adopted by the Chinese People’s Daily to describe the onset of the peasant revolution in India in 1967.
While I hope my pictures tell something of this story of resistance, I also want to portray people so that they are able to see and recognise themselves rather than as stand-ins for great sweeping themes, embodiments of conflict. This is, above all, intended to be a project about people, not symbols.
Ishan Tankha has been photographing in Central India since 2008. Works from A Peal of Spring Thunder have been exhibited at Fotofest 2018, Houston; A Million Mutinies Later—India at 70, Cardiff, 2017; and at Photo Kathmandu, 2015. Earlier, it received a FIND Grant 2013 from the India-Europe Foundation for New Dialogues.