Human lives as collateral damage: An artist’s critique of demonetization

Chintan Girish Modi
May 29 · 12 min read

(An edited version of this was first published by The Wire on May 19, 2019 under the title ‘An Artist’s Tender Critique of Demonetisation, and Memorial to its Victims’.)

When democracy is understood as a contest for seats in Parliament, it can be easy to lose sight of the citizen this system is meant to serve. One must look outside the ecosystem of election analysis to bring attention back to the people who must be at the heart of policymaking. This feat is ably accomplished by photo artist, curator and academic Chinar Shah through a project which set out to document the human suffering caused by the outgoing government’s demonetization debacle in November 2016.

Artist Chinar Shah (Photo credit: Aditi Rajeev)

Her digital publication, ‘A Memorial for the New Economy’, (2019) brings together photographs of embroidered handkerchiefs bearing the names of individuals reported to have died as a result of this disastrous policy decision that affected a large number of ordinary citizens who stood in long queues to claim their own hard-earned money from banks. Available for free download and circulation as a folder of digital images accompanied by an artist statement, this work is supported by Reliable Copy, an indie publishing house in Bangalore co-founded by Nihaal Faizal and Niharika Peri. Faizal and Shah have collaborated and exhibited together widely. Shah teaches at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. Faizal is an alumnus from the same institute, and his own art practice is intimately connected with G.159, a project space he ran during his student days.

“In terms of the kind of audience this work attempts to communicate to, I think most people that lived through demonetisation will be able to relate to it, or find something relevant in it,” says Faizal. “It is quite a loaded publication and responds to so much. Despite this, I feel that it is presented in a way that’s easily accessible, direct, and immediate and this comes entirely from Chinar’s lengthy history of having worked on similar subjects and with the medium of photography. Considering the work’s relationship to themes beyond demonetization itself, such as memorializing and capitalism-related-violence, I also feel people from contexts other than our own in India will also be able to engage with it and translate it into their own experiences with these subjects.”

Shah, who grew up in Ahmedabad, has engaged closely with the Gujarat riots of 2002 in an earlier project titled ‘Silenced Ruptures’ (2012). Looking back at this time when she was a relatively sheltered 14 year old, she produced a thoughtful critique of her own outsider position in Muslim communities dealing with the erasure of violence using the rhetoric of development, and a critique of photographic practices that turn violence into a spectacle. In her essay ‘Silenced Ruptures: Images from 2002 Gujarat Riots’ (2012), Shah asks, “Can atrocity be only represented through certain tropes such as evidence of blood, tears, rage, fire etc. or are there other ways of engaging with narratives of trauma and people beyond these conventions and singular ways of seeing?’ Her new publication ‘A Memorial for the New Economy’ seems like an exploration of, and an answer to, this very question.

Here are some excerpts from an email interview with Shah, who is currently in the UK for an artist residency where she is examining the outgoing Indian government’s Digital India Campaign, particularly the way in which the sudden demonetization of banknotes affected women.

Question: In a country like India wherein lives lost to genocide, caste violence, farmer suicide are rarely memorialized, what made you set out to memorialize individuals reported to have died as a consequence of demonetization?

Answer: In the past, I have worked extensively on the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and on the implications of creating visual narratives in violent times. However, I have never made work intended as a memorial before. This work, ‘A Memorial for the New Economy’, is not a static memorial. It isn’t frozen in time or space. It is a memorial-in-the-making, and one dependent on circulation and engagement.

Demonetization was primarily a policy decision and the violence caused was because of the Government’s extreme and autocratic steps to affect the economy — ‘surgical strike’ being the phrase used, rather loosely and without any consideration of its impact upon people. As such, this form of violence is very different from the other kinds of violence that you mentioned in the question. This act was unprecedented, and these deaths could have been very well avoided if the policy was implemented with more caution and care. Instead, the narrative of ‘greater good’ made up for the recklessness, and bodies were made disposable.

What struck me about the violence of demonetization was the abstract nature of the act, and the complete denial of these deaths. While there was a lot of criticism about demonetization in terms of how it failed its objectives, the deaths that resulted from it were never woven into this narrative of failure. As multiple reports tried to prove how demonetization failed to achieve its original objectives — of a cashless economy, of curbing black money, of Digital India — the deaths that resulted from it were never mourned, nor even acknowledged. Since the success or failure was only about the economy — an abstract concept — human lives just became collateral damage. As a society, we never memorialize deaths that happen directly because of capitalist structures and policies. Neither do we have words or a phrases to describe this violence. How can we begin mourning these deaths when we can’t even comprehend them in language?

Question: The act of embroidering a person’s name on a handkerchief is usually reserved for close friends, family and loved ones but you have chosen this intimate art form to honour people who died while waiting to claim their own hard-earned money lost due to a hastily executed policy decision. How did your own feelings and political beliefs influence your choice of medium?

Answer: As you rightly said, we usually embroider names of our loved ones on handkerchiefs. Embroidering the names of those who died because of demonetization was an emotional gesture, a gesture of love to those I have never met and those that died as a result of a system that all of us are very much a part of. I wanted to make a political work that was rooted in something personal and intimate.

Apart from the names, the handkerchiefs are also embroidered with floral motifs from the now redundant 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes. We use flowers for various occasions in India, including for rituals around death. I wanted to emphasize the iconography of flowers used specifically on Indian notes, and lay them side by side with the names. What flowers can we offer the dead? Only those that were used to beautify the banknotes, digitally printed and now illegal to circulate.

Question: There is this tenderness and beauty so evident in the physical form of the embroidered handkerchief. What were the kinds of conversations that took place between you and your collaborators as you worked on embroidering and photographing each handkerchief?

Answer: This has been a very long journey. I started this work almost two years ago. It began as a conversation between Nihaal Faizal, now the publisher for this book, and I. Nihaal and I have had endless conversations, debates and reflections over the smallest artistic decisions that went into this work, along with their implications. Radha Agarwal, a student, helped as a research assistant towards this project and we too spent many weekends working together, discussing how to start conversations about capitalism in the Indian context and the violence of neoliberal ideologues. And, of course, many hours were spent silently embroidering the handkerchiefs.

A recent conversation that comes to my mind — one that happened after the work was published, and one that took place in my absence but that really touched me — was a conversation between Nihaal and (art historian and arts administrator) Suresh Jayaram, a common friend. I believe they were discussing the reason for my choice of handkerchief as a medium in this work. Suresh said that when someone is crying, you can only give them a handkerchief. This was something I hadn’t articulated for myself, and I was deeply moved to hear this.

Question: Could you please take me through the process of how you conceptualized and executed this digital art project? I’m curious to know if you preferred to go in for a digital publication because part of the demonetization debacle was an exaggerated enthusiasm for a digital economy.

Answer: As I mentioned earlier, this publication is the result of two years of dialogue and work. There were lots of decisions to be made on the way and often we debated over the smallest of details. One of the biggest dilemmas was the nature of this publication and its implications. The earlier intent was to make a physical book, a very beautifully printed copy in a box that could resemble a memorial-object. However, there were two problems with this format. One, it would fix the object as a memorial, and myself as the maker of this memorial. How can we have a memorial when we never mourned these deaths collectively? Thus, it made sense to have something that was a bit more flexible — something open to interpretation, to modification, to transformation, something not static, but always becoming.

The other important aspect was that a printed object would have made this publication considerably expensive to both produce and purchase. As a work with 121 photographs — all of them in colour, and with embroidery details that would have been lost if printed too small, we decided that the most important gesture was to emphasize access to it. We decided that, if we put it online, we were rid of our printing budget, and so we could even distribute the work for free. This made sense considering the subject of the publication, and so we went even further and licensed it under Creative Commons, making it available to anyone to download, print, share or modify. We even published two versions — each of a different file size — with the bigger one enabling high resolution printing, should anyone choose to do so.

I hope that the readers of this work will take ownership of it, as each act of engaging is a way to memorialize. Of course, even with this format, one could argue that only those who have access to the Internet and certain networks — both technical and cultural — can access this publication. However, enabling this work as a digital object ensured that the work remains free to circulate and achieve a larger reach.

At the time of making the work, the intent was not to respond to the entire debate around the digital and paperless economy. However, it is a very important reading of the work and adds layers to what this format could mean.

Question: What were some of the most surprising, disturbing and heartwarming discoveries you made as part of the research process?

Answer: Most of the research process was nothing but heartbreaking. A lot of time spent in disbelief, debates and making sense of strange conversations. One particularly disturbing conversation that comes to my mind: a group of young middle aged men refused to believe that there were any deaths because of demonetization. Their argument was that, if someone died because of a heart attack, the person must have had heart disease as opposed to having been shocked at realizing the money they had was invalid, or inaccessible.

I remember someone once said to me that it is unfair to pin everything on demonetization, when people’s physical or mental health is in question. This entire argument takes us to the heart of the absurdity of the situation. If there are riots, the death is a result of murder, something tangible to know and prove. If people died during floods or earthquake, again an outside element affects the life, an element that can be experienced physically and mapped forensically. With demonetization, there was no tangible outer force that caused death. And still people died. This made it very easy to deny the responsibility of these deaths upon demonetization. I have never before experienced the denial of violence at such a scale, and I found this to be extremely disturbing.

Question: Human suffering was framed as a sort of sacrifice while justifying demonetization as a process that would help tackle the menace of black money in the economy, and also bring an end to terrorism in Kashmir. In what way do you think your memorial could speak to families who lost their loved ones, or inspire a wider conversation about apology, justice and reparations?

Answer: I don’t know, and this is a tough question to answer. I hope this work reaches the families, and will trigger amongst us all wider conversations. I really needed to make this work for I was deeply affected by what demonetization had revealed to us about our own collective denialism. These deaths weren’t random accidents. People died because of direct and gross negligence. Of course, within a system such as this, there can be no legal justice for those who died. But, these deaths weren’t sacrifices, and the only way to apology is to first acknowledge our own participation in these mass killings.

Question: Since there is no official confirmation from any state authorities about the actual number of deaths linked to demonetization, what kinds of evidence do you anchor your truth-telling in?

Answer: The possibility of any official confirmation is null and void since the reason for each and every death is different, and therefore easy to deny. The names I have collected come from multiple news sources. I spent months compiling a list of these, and then cross-checking articles and reports. Although grounded in data, the work isn’t statistical, nor does it attempt to prove the truth of this information. That is not the purpose of this work. The news reports I accessed are all available in the public domain and are equally accessible to anyone else, if searched.

This is the reason why, within the handkerchiefs, I only used the first names of the individuals as opposed to their full names. This is because I don’t set out to prove the reality of these deaths by serving an impersonal list of data. Instead, the work is a response to the event and its aftermath, through an artistic lens — one which although grounded in proof of a kind, moves beyond it.

Question: Would you describe this work as a feminist critique of demonetization? It makes me think of healing circles and public hearings often initiated by women in communities that want to assert their agency in response to state-sanctioned brutality.

Answer: I do think so. However, I don’t yet know how to theorize the work within this framework. But I can share with you a few strands of thought that emerged while making this work. For instance, I personally know many women who had to give up their secret savings because of demonetization. An aunt of mine had saved a few lakhs for years together, and finally had to reveal this to her husband. I am not sure if demonetization could control hoarding of black money, but many women for sure lost their independence and whatever dreams they harboured secretly with these savings. Within a patriarchal society, we definitely robbed women of their money.

At the same time, I kept thinking about the medium itself and what it could represent. Embroidering is seen as a domestic vocation, a ‘woman’s hobby’. This, combined with a publication that is essentially a photo album, situates this work within an intimate, domestic and often feminized space.

Question: Have these handkerchiefs been displayed in community spaces and galleries? What kinds of engagement do you imagine in those contexts as opposed to a digital publication?

Answer: The work specifically is not the handkerchiefs, but their photographic reproduction. As such, even in exhibitions or in other physical contexts, it will be the photographs that are on display and not the handkerchiefs. As a work that is open to interpretation, how it is framed within a space, will be a curatorial decision left to the organizers. For instance, it is being shown as a work in an upcoming show in Sweden, and the curators wish to show it as a wallpaper. I can equally well imagine it being displayed as a grid of framed photographs, or projected as a slideshow. I suppose the engagement and the reading from all of these versions will remain distinct, but for me the work exists primarily in its state of possibilities, and that is the ideal encounter — one which is intimate and direct, and one in which the viewer is immediately in control.

(Credits for all images: Chinar Shah, ‘A Memorial for the New Economy’, 2019, unless mentioned otherwise)