A Peal of Spring Thunder

By Ishan Tankha 0

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.

A villager from Sarasmal village, Chhattisgarh, in 2014, looks out toward what used to be his land before he was pressured into selling 12 acres. He now has land enough for his house, which sits right on the boundary of a large steel mine. Daily blasting sessions in the mine rattle and shake his house, scaring his infant son. “I’m hoping they will employ me in the mine at least,” he says.

A villager from Sarasmal village, Chhattisgarh, in 2014, looks out toward what used to be his land before he was pressured into selling 12 acres. He now has land enough for his house, which sits right on the boundary of a large steel mine. Daily blasting sessions in the mine rattle and shake his house, scaring his infant son. “I’m hoping they will employ me in the mine at least,” he says.

Letters from home, photographs of a sister, medicines and ammunition—a Maoist guerrilla along the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border in 2010 repacks her bag before leaving camp.

Letters from home, photographs of a sister, medicines and ammunition—a Maoist guerrilla along the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border in 2010 repacks her bag before leaving camp.

Maoist soldier, Gadchiroli, 2010

Maoist soldier, Gadchiroli, 2010

Villagers in Bastar, Chhattisgarh in 2015 wait to hear if they will get daily wage work under the MNREGA scheme. The sarpanch is on the phone.

Villagers in Bastar, Chhattisgarh in 2015 wait to hear if they will get daily wage work under the MNREGA scheme. The sarpanch is on the phone.

A Maoist soldier transports eggs to a nearby camp in Gadchiroli, 2010. Eggs are a luxury item.

A Maoist soldier transports eggs to a nearby camp in Gadchiroli, 2010. Eggs are a luxury item.

Maoist soldier, Gadchiroli, 2010

Maoist soldier, Gadchiroli, 2010

Dantewada, 2010, a member of a village militia runs back to camp after fetching some water

Dantewada, 2010, a member of a village militia runs back to camp after fetching some water

Samhaiya, a platoon commander in Gadchiroli, 2010, had just been sitting under the stars, listening to the evening news on the BBC’s Hindi service, when this picture was taken.

Samhaiya, a platoon commander in Gadchiroli, 2010, had just been sitting under the stars, listening to the evening news on the BBC’s Hindi service, when this picture was taken.



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. 

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