Performance and exhibition
Performance duration: Approx 2hrs 30 mins.
The Bhawal court case was an extended court case in pre-Independence India that revolved around the identity of a sanyasi (or Hindu religious ascetic) claiming to be Ramendra Narayan Roy, the second Kumar of Bhawal (the heir of one of the last large zamindari estates in Dhaka), presumed dead a decade earlier. The claim was contested by the British Court of Wards and by the widow of the second Kumar of Bhawal, Bibhabati Devi. The case was in trial from 1930 – 1946.
Over the course of these 16 years, the physical attributes, birthmarks, portraits and testimonies were collated as forensic evidence to establish the claimant/sanyasi’s identity as being the Kumar. Hundreds of witnesses, including doctors, photographers, artists, prostitutes, peasants, revenue collectors, tenants, holy men, magistrates, handwriting experts, relatives and passers-by were deposed. The case went from the District Court in Dhaka to the High Court of Calcutta to the Privy Council in London, finally ending in 1946 with a victory for the plaintiff, who died a few days after the verdict.
Rehearsing the Witness: The Bhawal Court Case uses this trial about a possible impostor to re-examine the enormous archive that the case produced; it uses performance as a means of rendering problematic the notions of evidence, archive and identity. Both the domains of the law and of theatre or acting frame larger questions pertaining to the production of truth and reality, assumptions regarding stable, consistent and believable identities and the construction of credible narratives.
The project has had three iterations and continues (as from the Dhaka Art Summit, 2018) in the form of a re-trial staged with two real lawyers and a real judge drawing a relationship between re-enactment and retrial and the complex tension between forensic evidence, the act of speculation or imagination, and finally, truth-finding and truth-making.
Broadly the retrial considers how identity is written into history and played out in the domain of the law, as opposed to the actual complexity of a real lived experiences and relationships. The State, that is the British Court of Wards, is one of the parties in the Bhawal case and we see, via the testimony of expert witnesses on the body as evidence (and as the site where identity is played out) what the State considers and requires as identity and where the individual locates identity.
The retrial uses a set of archival photographs used as evidence in the case (which is currently with the Alkazi Collection of Photography) as well as original testimonies.