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Transforming the ‘poison of time’
Sheba Chhachhi brings her art, and activism, to the Townsend Center

| 09 February 2005


Sheba Chhachhi (Deborah Stalford photo)
Sheba Chhachhi combs through piles of photographs, searching for the image in her mind’s eye. The stunning photos, mounted but still waiting to be framed in makeshift quarters at the Townsend Center, are vivid portraits, mostly, of Indian women who have shed their secular lives to join sects of wandering mystics. Apologetic for the slapdash presentation, she is no less eager to share the women’s stories.

Chhachhi has spent more than a decade getting to know these modern-day sadhus, the only way she feels comfortable capturing them on film. As she describes how they are “stripped of everything,” from their hair and clothes to their castes and sexual identities — most drawn by spiritual desire, many propelled by abuse at home — her affinity for them is unmistakable.

“I think the reason these women interest me is because they step out of convention and social frameworks,” says Chhachhi, who speaks in a soft, musical voice. “They are not wives, they are not mothers, they are not daughters. They reinvent themselves as individual beings…. The self-definition is in relation to the metaphysical, and not the social.”


An initiation rite for modern-day sadhus, part of a tradition that dates to 4th-century India. Artist and activist Sheba Chhacchi spent more than a decade getting to know her country's women ascetics, the subjects of her photo exhibit, "Ganga's Daughters."
An activist as well as an artist, Chhachhi is an experienced traveler in both those worlds. Her manner is gracious, especially for someone who has just arrived, days earlier, from the subcontinent — her first trip to the United States — and whose photo exhibition, “Ganga’s Daughters: Meetings With Women Ascetics, 1992-2002,” was scheduled to open this morning. “Would you kill me,” she asks meekly, “if I smoked a cigarette?” Lighting up on the terrace, she takes pains to keep downwind of her visitors.

Social niceties notwithstanding, Chhachhi relates powerfully to “women on the edges,” observing that “I don’t fit particularly into the conventional model myself.” The renunciates and ecstatics in her photos, she explains, “are seeking to transform themselves in certain ways, both socially and internally… and they live alone, which is something I like to do.”

Her fascination was sparked by feminist researchers who, in the 1980s, uncovered a trove of ancient poetry by Indian women mystics, some of them now regarded as saints. The current generation of ascetics — whose gatherings every 12 years draw millions of Indians, including lay pilgrims, from all over the country — are their spiritual descendants.

Finding the perfect form

Chhachhi herself was born in 1958 in Ethiopia, where her father was stationed by the Indian military — “He was an engineer in the army, thankfully,” she laughs, “so I don’t have to constantly apologize” — but returned to India at the age of 3, relocating frequently per his superiors’ orders. Later, she says, “I spent some of my teen years hanging out with folksingers and mystics,” before getting involved with the feminist movement. Educated in Delhi (her current home), Calcutta, and at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, she took up documentary photography in 1980. By 1993 she had largely switched to multimedia installations, “the perfect form because it brought photography, text, and sculpture together.”

Checking in on Chhachhi

Sheba Chhachhi’s “Ganga’s Daughters” will be on view in the Townsend Center’s Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, through Feb. 15. “Neelkanth,” on display at 108 Wurster Hall through Feb. 19, will be accompanied by an on-site reception and dialogue with the artist on Feb. 14, from 4 to 6 p.m. “When the Gun Is Raised, Dialogue Stops” will be on display in 235 Kroeber Hall from Feb. 17 to 25, with an on-site reception and dialogue on Feb. 18 from 7 to 9 p.m. Chhachhi will also lead a workshop, “Bearing Witness: On Art and Feminist Politics in South Asia,” in 2063 Valley Life Sciences Building on Saturday, Feb. 19, from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Her visit is sponsored by the Townsend Center; the Departments of Women’s Studies, Architecture, Art Practice, South and Southeast Asian Studies, Sociology, Anthropology, Rhetoric, and Political Science; International and Area Studies; the Peace and Conflict Studies Program; the Center for South Asia Studies; the Beatrice Bain Research Group; the Center for Race and Gender; and the UC Santa Cruz Department of Women’s Studies.
In addition to “Ganga’s Daughters,” two of Chhachhi’s installations will be on display on campus during the month of February. One, a video installation titled “Neelkanth (Blue Throat): Poison/Nectar,” takes off from a popular Indian myth in which gods and demons, normally at odds, band together out of what Chhachhi terms their “mutual greed” for the nectar of immortality. In their misguided efforts to acquire the elixir, however, they end up churning it into “a heaving mass of black poison, called the poison of time.” The god Shiva, “out of compassion for the world,” takes the poison into his throat, which turns blue as a result.

To Chhachhi, this work, like her photos, is about transformation. “Perhaps you could say that my basic inquiry is about global transformation,” she suggests. “Neelkanth” — which takes its form from the mandala and features representations of disembodied senses surrounded by images of landfills that look, she says mischievously, like traditional British-colonial landscapes of India — poses the question of “fragmentation and the possibility of creating harmony.”

A photo installation, “When the Gun Is Raised, Dialogue Stops,” gives voice to the women of Kashmir, who, Chhachhi explains, offer an alternative to the “dominant, hegemonic” representation of the war-torn region, a flashpoint for tensions between India and Pakistan. With writer Sonia Jabbar, Chhachhi made numerous visits to the Kashmir valley and its refugee camps, determined to “bring the human back into the discourse” — a discourse drowned out, she says, both by gunfire and by the tug-of-war between Pakistan and India, Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists, and other “either/or” dicho-tomies. The work, she says, is “trying to create a third space,” in which women’s voices can be heard above the violence.

Kashmir, she believes, “is a microcosm for what is happening in many parts of the world,” including “the rise of the right [and] the rise of fundamentalisms, whether it’s Christian, Islamic, or Hindu.” Considering these fights over national and religious identity, she muses, “Perhaps these are just red herrings while the transnational corporations take over.”

And is she optimistic about the possibility of global transformation? “Depends on which morning you get me,” she laughs. Then, more seriously, she adds: “It’s not about any kind of fixes. It’s about a quality of attention, and trying to raise the questions.”