Documentary, Events, Exhibitions, Interviews, Photojournalism, Uncategorized

On show at Format: Poulomi Basu’s A Ritual of Exile

Uma, 14, in her chhau. She sleeps on heaps of hay stack. Her mother told me Uma did not tell anyone when her periods started in fear she would be sent to exile. When they found out after the third day, because she ran out of cloths to wear and hide her bleeding, she was punished and made to sleep on nothing but hay in the family's animal enclosure. This marked her coming of age. Basti, Achham, Nepal, 2016. From the series A Ritual of Exile © Poulomi Basu/Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund

Shot in a remote region of Nepal, the Indian image-maker's project uses multiple platforms to tell the story of women deemed “untouchable” when they're having their period

It’s illegal, and a tradition that puts women at great risk, but despite this has been normalised, accepted and passed down through generations. In parts of Nepal, a practice called Chhaupadi dictates that women who are menstruating, and those who experience bleeding after childbirth, must live in makeshift huts because they are considered impure and therefore untouchable.

Exiled by their communities and families, the women are refused access to water and toilets and must eat food scraps, fed to them as though they were animals. They are exposed in every sense, vulnerable to rape, abduction and assault, and even death from asphyxiation caused by the fires they are forced to light in their tiny, inadequately ventilated huts.

In 2013, photojournalist Poulomi Basu travelled to Surkhet District in a remote region of Nepal to meet and photograph some of these women, assisted on the ground by the charity WaterAid. Appalled and outraged by what she saw, she vowed to return. “The first trip was so short and I was frustrated because I realised the scale of [the story] and wanted to spend more time there and see much more,” she says.

Mangu Bika, 14. “I was in Gujarat in India working during my first year of menstruation. I didn’t observe chhaupadi there. Things are different here. The first time I went into a chhaupadi I was scared of snakes. But now, more than snakes, I am scared of men; I am scared of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. Because when we go to school, we all sit together and their are no rules there or any discrimnation against the menstruating woman." Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, share the chhaupadi with Mangu. "It is the traditional belief that our 'kul devtaa' [house god] will be angered, so I was sent to chhaupadi. I don't like being here but there is a lot of force. My mother-in-law forces me, but what can I do. She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother-in-law even makes my two year old child observe chhaupadi just because he sleeps with me." Surkhet district, Nepal

Mangu Bika, 14. “I was in Gujarat in India working during my first year of menstruation. I didn’t observe chhaupadi there. Things are different here. The first time I went into a chhaupadi I was scared of snakes. But now, more than snakes, I am scared of men; I am scared of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. Because when we go to school, we all sit together and their are no rules there or any discrimnation against the menstruating woman.” Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, share the chhaupadi with Mangu. “It is the traditional belief that our ‘kul devtaa’ [house god] will be angered, so I was sent to chhaupadi. I don’t like being here but there is a lot of force. My mother-in-law forces me, but what can I do. She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother-in-law even makes my two year old child observe chhaupadi just because he sleeps with me.” Surkhet district, Nepal. From the series A Ritual of Exile © Poulomi Basu /Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund with field support in Surkhet by WaterAid

She returned to Nepal the following year, and again in 2016 after she won the Magnum Foundation Emergency Grant to continue the project. A Ritual of Exile: Blood Speaks won the 2017 FotoEvidence Book Award, and as a result will be published later this year; and it’s currently on show as an immersive VR installation at Format International Photography Festival in Derby.

Housed in a small, dark space inside the derelict 19th century Pearson’s Building, the multi-platform show in Derby includes two screen projections, photographs shown in LED-powered light boxes, a surround-soundscape and the VR film. The room deliberately evokes the oppressive environment inhabited by the women, and, putting on the VR headset, you are immediately transported to their world – first surrounded by Nepal’s expansive, mountainous landscape, then whisked inside a claustrophobic hut.

In the film, Basu tells the story of Chhaupadi through an intimate account of one woman’s experience – accompanied by her young son in her exile, we see her wash him in the river, in a quiet but moving exchange that somehow speaks volumes of her courage. The VR film is one of three Basu is producing, and she says it’s just a sneak preview of the completed work she’ll launch this year.

“You not only see these women’s struggles, but their silent protest and instinct to protect their children no matter what,” says Basu. “I wanted the audience to experience a sense of emotion stronger than watching a film or reading captions. This way you’re drawn in and [encounter] more surprises than you would in a 2D film. You might hear a sound and turn – something that really works in VR, a medium that has not been entirely explored.”

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