The Indian Evidence Act

Holly | 14 Augest 2017

The Indian Evidence Act of 1872 defined a fact according to interior as well as exterior experience, which – from then through to the present – has made the identity of self and nation difficult to prove in India. From a 1912 trial for a ‘princely impostor’ to two for sedition in 1908 and 2016, and from colonial histories to those of contemporary politics, this article weaves together the media constructions of journalists and politicians with recent works by contemporary artists Zuleikha Chaudhari, Dayanita Singh, Sudarshan Shetty and Rina Banerjee. These figures mine archives to turn five types of evidence central to identity formation into the materials of their art: the body, speech, paper, architecture and objects. Thus, in spite of the state’s attempt to pin down identity with evidence, the author tracks how such evidence is as fluid now as it was in the past, from exterior juridical facts to those of interior concern.

Section 3, ‘Fact’, Illustration (d): ‘That a man holds a certain opinion, has a certain intention, acts in good faith, or fraudulently, or uses a particular word in a particular sense, or is or was at a specified time conscious of a particular sensation, is a fact,’ The Indian Evidence Act , 1872, Part I. Relevancy of Facts, Chapter I

If a man does something, anything – true or false – it is a fact. If he has intention, is conscious or unconscious, if he has sensation or belief, if he uses a word this way, or that, it is a fact. This, at least, is how the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 defined a fact. A fact, from this vantage, is wily. It relates to exterior as well as interior experience, the latter of which, needless to say, is difficult to prove.11 ‘The modern fact’, as Mary Poovey discusses in A History of the Modern Fact, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1998, joins the Aristotelian definition of a fact as an ‘observed particular’ with that of something observed in order to be ‘evidence of some theory’, a story at once generalised and motivated, which was formulated from the seventeenth century (pp 9–10). The ‘modern fact’ thus explicitly relates the units (facts) of ‘systematic knowledge’ with its ‘constitutive fictions’ to confound the epistemology from which it emerged (p 11).View all notes At the present moment, across the globe, so much is at stake to build and prove one’s identity that any assemblage of person remains elusive. Yet the modern nation-state hinges on evidentiary decisions, as if a fingerprint, let alone text, video or audio, could really define an individual. Thus the state – as well as journalists, politicians and artists – enacts forensic investigations to plumb the question of identity.22 Eyal Weizman, ‘Introduction’, in Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2014, p 1View all notes

This is acutely the case in India, where the question of who one is, and how swiftly one can change, has risen to the fore in a contested political landscape.33 See the 2016 report ‘Stifling Dissent’ by Human Rights Watch: all notes The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged from a nationalist movement that sought to define India as fundamentally Hindu. In the early twentieth century, this ideology evolved, and still competes, with secular ideologies of the Congress party (among others), to fight for independence from the colonial British Raj, or Rule. In 1947, the British, with the sanction of secular, Hindu and Muslim nationalist parties, partitioned the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. People continue to be put into grids by the state according to facts. Are you national or anti-national? Are you secular or religious? Are you Indian or Pakistani? Are you Kashmiri, Marathi, Tamil… ?44 See, for example, William Gould, Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004; Christophe Jaffrelot, Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2007; and Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998.View all notes

But how does the tension between the subjective and the objective nature of a fact thread through the past to both loosen and condemn identity in the present? Recent exhibitions of the work of Zuleikha Chaudhari, Dayanita Singh, Sudarshan Shetty and Rina Banerjee pose this question with poignancy, particularly when entwined with current legal debates and arrests.55 I focus on these artists because of confluences between their work and the turn of the twentieth century, and the circumstances of their recent exhibition. The theme is far broader, however, and other artists could have been included.View all notes These artists, as well as politicians and journalists, mine archives to turn five types of evidence central to identity formation in the modern nation-state into the materials of their art: the body, speech, paper, architecture and objects. Their projects show how such dialogues about the nation and identity, which had their origins in India in the early twentieth century, are as relevant as ever. In spite of the nation-state’s attempt to pin down identity with evidence, such ‘evidence’ is proving to be as fluid now as it was in the past. In this article, I thus track the use of the ‘fact’ from exterior juridical evidence to that of an artist’s interior concern.


The basic facts of the case are this. In 1909 the second kumar (prince) of Bhawal, an extensive landowning estate in the region of Bengal in eastern India, died from syphilis in Darjeeling where he had travelled with his wife in order to convalesce. In 1921, twelve years later, a sannyasi (ascetic) came to the city of Dhaka in Bengal (present-day Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan in 1971). Hundreds of people, including his sister, believed this man to be the second kumar, returned. Others, including his wife and the British Court of Wards that had taken over the estate, did not. The case over the true identity of the sannyasi was fought in the courts until 1946, when, on the eve of independence, the judge concluded that the second kumar of Bhawal had not died, that the ascetic was indeed the prince.

The evidence for the case, compiled in a magisterial book, A Princely Impostor?, by Partha Chatterjee in 2002, included testimonies of his physical appearance, each and every scar, from the tiger claw to the boil, from the snake-like skin above the ankle to the small mole on the genitalia. It also included language – why could the sannyasi not speak or read Bengali, his native tongue? – memories – the sannyasi’s own and those of all who had known the second kumar – doctors – did the second kumar actually die, and was he actually cremated? – and the weather – did or did it not rain for days, forfeiting or at least delaying the burning of the funeral pyre?66 Partha Chatterjee, A Princely Impostor: The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2002View all notes Photographs entered into the forensics. These compared the comportment and height of the second kumar and the sannyasi, their bulk and stances, the shape of the chin, the crinkle of the hair, strength of jaw, dips of the ears, curvature of the eyebrows and eyes, the flare of the nostrils, etc.

Unknown Photographer, ‘Exhibit XLIV – Photograph of the Second Kumar in dhuti and coat’, from the album Evidence in the Case of Ramendra Narayan Roy ‘Kumar of Bhawal’, gelatin silver print, 1933–1934, 205 x 141 mm, courtesy: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Edna Lorenz, Calcutta, ‘Exhibit XLVIII – Photograph of Ramendra Narayan Roy (plaintiff) in dhuti and coat’, from the album Evidence in the Case of Ramendra Narayan Roy ‘Kumar of Bhawal’, gelatin silver print, 1933–1934, 191 x 144 mm, courtesy: The Alkazi Collection of Photography

‘Tiny details provide the key to a deeper reality of a person,’ according to Carlo Ginzburg, which came to the attention of art historians such as Giovanni Morelli, detectives such as Sherlock Holmes, and psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud precisely around 1900.77 See Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’, History Workshop, vol 9, spring 1980, pp 5–36.View all notesSuch details are circumstantial evidence, clues, but can they accrue to the status of fact?88 On the history of circumstantial evidence and its relationship to narrative, as well as the Indian Evidence Act, see Alexander Welsh, Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1992, pp 1–31, pp 151–165.View all notesFor a person’s hair can thin, his waist can shrink or extend, his nose from yogic breathing exercises can expand, even an extra inch of height can be goaded from the bones.99 The reliability of a person’s physical identity has been at the centre of cases through the centuries, such as that of Martin Guerre in the sixteenth century, of Roger Tichborne in the mid nineteenth century (see Rohan McWilliam, The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation, Hambledon Continuum, London, 2007; Jennifer Tucker’s forthcoming book Facing Facts: The Great Tichborne Trial in the Victorian Visual Imagination; and Jorge Louis Borges’s Tom Castro, the Implausible Imposter, 1971), and of Louis-Charles XVII, the Dauphin and final heir to the elder branch of the Bourbon royal bloodline after the 1789 French Revolution. In the case of the imposture of the Dauphin, as in the the Bhawal case, Richard Taws has recently drawn attention to the slippery role of imagery in which ‘reproductive printmaking might produce – in often unexpected ways and at the same time – counterfactual histories, myths, and untruths, as well as documentary evidence, transmissible data, and verifiable realities’. See Richard Taws, ‘The Dauphin and his Doubles: Visualizing Royal Impostures after the French Revolution’, Art Bulletin, vol 98, no 1, 2016, p 78.View all notes ‘A photograph or a sketch of somebody is one thing,’ the director Zuleikha Chaudhari recently told me, ‘but who someone is is difficult to gage.’

Identity, even with details, can remain evasive. It is a negotiation between the self and others that recognise that self. In his history of the Bhawal case, Chatterjee considers the philosophical question of identity as not solely resting in a singular person: ‘The sannyasi had succeeded to most of the social relationships of the second kumar… [his] physical and psychological continuity… had been accomplished’.1010 Chatterjee, A Princely Impostor, op cit, p 126View all notes Does it matter after all if this was or was not the same person, if nearly everyone believed it to be so? ‘The kumar had survived in the sannyasi’, no?

A person slipping into another person as an impostor seems to be a rare and startling occurrence, except we witness it all the time in theatre, through our suspension of belief. Actors are temporarily the characters they create, and the emotions they elicit, such as empathy or longing or joy, are real. Chaudhari says,

One point of acting, is for the actor to convince in order to honestly convey an emotion. The viewer, as witness, must be convinced, not because it is being performed, but because the emotion is real.

In 2016, Chaudhari extended an open invitation to audition for the roles of the characters in the Bhawal court case. This took place in the space of a gallery, the Mumbai Art Room, with the photographic evidence from the case, borrowed from the Alkazi Collection, hung elegantly on the walls alongside testimonies and court recordings. The central idea was to see if two people – professional actors or anyone – could build one of the characters in the Bhawal Court Case from the evidence into a believable person, to ‘rehearse the witness’, as the show is titled.1111 The rehearsal for the part, for the play, contains an edge of doubt. The actors haven’t sunk completely and the viewers are on guard. It is close to the theatrics of the courtroom, where the actor is potentially the impostor and the facts are revealed to be both human-made, ‘“what someone has fabricated” (the manufactured thing)’ and scientific, ‘“what nobody has fabricated” (the autonomous fact)’, as Bruno Latour has discussed. See Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2010, p 18.View all notes How can an actor perform the sannyasi so that you believe he is the prince? How can an actor enliven the wife? ‘Where does one locate believability?’ Chaudhari asks, in the context of a rehearsal – ‘to see that something is built, that doesn’t already exist’ – and therefore reveal the workings of identity.

Though linked to the case, and thread through its main protagonists, Chaudhari’s questions and the actors’ responses exposed disjunctions between the evidence – photographs, testimonies, court records – and a whole, fallible self. ‘How would you say who you are?’ Chaudhari asked to those who had signed up. But those who had come to audition ‘had no idea’. ‘Can you describe yourself physically,’ she would ask, to which they responded ‘with passport-like images’. ‘From the juxtaposition’ she understood that ‘one has a strong sense, or predetermined sense, of how one looks, but no sense of who one is’. Can one ever conjure up a portrait of the exterior and interior self, or of others, through evidence, particularly when memory is so weak?

The deficiency of memory is of course a justification for evidence. Evidence externalises a family or a company or a society’s memory, while also absenting what has not been written or visualised, what has been purposefully excised, or what has not been collected. Thus, the materials maintained in archives become sources and absences: juridical, historical, theatrical, fictional, poetic, aural etc. From an archive of nearly anything – paper, photographs, objects, memories – one can build a story, just as a portrait aims to build a likeness. But threat is inherent too: ‘would we really like ourselves to be so neatly defined by the information that documents capture,’ Sabih Ahmed of the Asia Art Archive wondered during his testimony, ‘that too for purposes of governance and control?’1212 Phalguni Desai, ‘Re-re-re-trial’, The Hindu, 2 January 2016,, accessed March and May 2016View all notes

‘Systems of classification (ethnicity, race, religion, language, sex, caste, and so on) and the instruments of identification (photograph, signature, finger-print, registration, identity papers, school reports, medical records, and so on),’ as seen in a court, Chatterjee writes, ‘will work relentlessly to fix and pin down certain invariant features of identity that were likely to hold firm and remain visible over time.’1313 Chatterjee, A Princely Impostor?, op cit, pp 362–363View all notes

The rehearsal affords an open-ended re-entry into the Bhawal case: one can slip out of one’s life to become an ascetic, or maybe a prince, or, like Sigmund Freud, one can fail to recognise one’s self in the mirror, just as one can fail to identify others. One can play a different character. Thus, the uncanny aspect of sudden recognition, misrecognition, or the failure to recognise, works against the entire legal apparatus of evidence and of modern governmental regimes.1414 See Sigmund Freud’s famous essay ‘The “Uncanny”’, 1919. He quotes Schelling, ‘everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light’ (p 4) before commenting on the uncanniness of the double, seeing oneself as a stranger (p 17).View all notes

At the end of his book, Chatterjee remarks that the final arbiters of the Bhawal case come close to suggesting the problem: ‘whereas identity may be disproved by evidence, it can never be proved beyond doubt’. In 1946, on the eve of Indian independence, the Bhawal court case was decided in favour of the ascetic prince as a singular man rather than an impostor of a dead one. Chatterjee argues that this was not so much about the facts of the case, or even who the man was, but about the transition from colonial-state to nation-state. The British bowed out with a verdict that escaped the system and its instruments, transferring the question of identity and its fundamental fluidity to the emerging nations of south Asia.

This is an ‘era of the witness’.1515 See Weizman, Forensis, op cit, p 21, n 30; Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History, Routledge, London and New York, 1991; and Annette Wieviorka, The Era of the Witness, Jared Stark, trans, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2006.View all notes An unprecedented amount of evidence, often neither true nor false yet relentless in its accusations to govern and control, accrues. The rehearsal of this trial affords a contemplative release from strictly defining the identity of the plaintiff and the witness, as bodies and as selves.


‘I want to share my experience in the jail with you,’ the graduate student Kanhaiya Kumar said in a rousing speech after his release on bail in late February 2016.1616 ‘We will win this fight: full text of Kanhaiya’s JNU Speech’, Hindustan Times, 4 March 2016,, accessed 4 March 2016View all notes The government had charged Kumar with sedition under a law that the British colonial government, the Raj or Rule, introduced into the Indian Penal Code as Section 124A to stifle Indian nationalist agitation. That was in 1870, around the time of the Bhawal court case and the Indian Evidence Act.

‘This time I have experience, all that I used to study earlier.’1717 IbidView all notes Kumar is a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, and president of the All India Student Federation (AISF).1818 For a history of the JNU see Kunal Pradhan, ‘The Republic of Ideas’, India Today, 10 March 2016,, accessed 5 April 2016.View all notes The government had charged him based on his purported use of ‘anti-national’ slogans at a rally for freedom he had led on the university campus a couple of weeks earlier. The protest had been held on the anniversary of the death of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a man who sought independence for the Indian state of Kashmir. He was convicted for his role in the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and was executed in 2013.

The question of Kashmir once again returns the present to the formation of the nation-states of India and Pakistan, when the British left the region in 1947. This was one of the bloodiest migrations the world has ever seen. Home to a majority Muslim population with a Hindu king, the state of Kashmir was caught in between. Three wars between India and Pakistan resulted, and Kashmir’s border continues to be one of the most highly militarised in the world.

Kumar said, ‘People in JNU do a lot of research. [My experience] will provide “primary data,” first-hand information.’1919 ‘We will win this fight,’ op citView all notes At the heart of the JNU protest, and others across India, was not only the tense debate over freedom of speech and dissent, but also a wide belief that much evidence is fabricated, such as that which condemned Afzal Guru to death.2020 See Arundhati Roy, ‘The Hanging of Afzal Guru is a Stain on India’s Democracy’, The Guardian, 10 February 2013,, accessed between February and May 2016.View all notes

The case against Kanhaiya Kumar is questioned because of the validity of the evidence against him, which aids in dismantling the case’s proof. ‘There is discontinuity in [the] video and audio has been inserted from elsewhere,’ K P C Gandhi, chairman of Hyderabad-based Truth Labs, told the media.2121 See Uma Sudhir, ‘“Hate” Words Inserted In JNU Videos, No “Pakistan Zindabad”: Probe’, NDTV, 2 March 2016, and see, accessed 8 May 2016.View all notes After Kumar’s arrest by the federal government, the Delhi government and the JNU initiated a ‘forensic investigation’ with Truth Labs of the videos that documented the protest. ‘In the manipulated clips, videos have been edited and voices have been added,’ Gandhi noted.2222 IbidView all notes Before the videos were widely circulated on television and social media, ‘anti-national’ slogans that justified Kumar’s arrest seem to have been inserted from another source.2323 See Siddharth Varadarajan, ‘On Kanhaiya: It is Time to Stand Up and Be Counted’, The Wire, 19 February 2016,, accessed between February and May 2016. On the ‘procedures by which media artifacts turn into evidence’, see Susan Schuppli, ‘Impure Matter: A Forensics of WTC Dust’, in Godofredo Pereira, ed, Savage Objects, Fundação Cidade de Guimarães, Guimarães, 2012, pp 120–140.View all notes

Slow the video down and cheers of ‘Azadi!’, ‘Freedom!’, begin to yawn into a different accusation, of freedom from tampering with evidence. Sedition can be real, but here the technology of documentation has at once plaited and disjoined an ‘anti-national’ case into a larger protest if not an artwork. Media must be scrutinised for its additions and erasures, what cannot be heard or seen if done cleverly. The art historian Giovanni Morelli tried to glean the hand of the artist from what he had painted subconsciously, just as the Bhawal case lawyers tried to compare the lines of the face, or Freud the traces of trauma on the mind. What is the ear or the tip of the finger for the video artist? Where is the clue? Kumar’s experience provides him with the ‘primary data’ with which to push back against the identity of ‘anti-national’ he has been assigned. But this does not reprieve, as Partha Chatterjee writes, the ‘enormous power of governmental technologies to mold [sic], categorize and authenticate our identities’, even through manufactured, or simply mistaken, means.

Is the witness one who pushes back against such technological constructions, the artefacts, and evidence, or the very landscape of the accusation, in this case speech? The Indian Evidence Act of 1872 claims that ‘a man… uses a particular word in a particular sense… is a fact’.2424 The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, Part I: Relevancy of Facts, Chapter I, Section 3, ‘Fact’, Illustration (d)View all notes The main point of the case remains the slogan: did Kumar specifically call for the state of Kashmir’s freedom from India, or simply for other freedoms? Even if he did, is this an ‘actual excitement of disaffection’, a proof of sedition, or is it the juridical right to speak?

Words are both tethered to their meanings and can also become undone in the negotiation of their definition, which was a tense point of contest in earlier trials for sedition. For instance, the British charged Bal Ganghadar Tilak, first in 1897 and then in 1908, for ‘inciting disaffection’ through articles in his newspapers and through other media. Tilak wrote and founded newspapers (the English-language Mahratta and the Marathi-language Kesari), founded a school (the New English School) and promoted festivals to agitate for independence. He was one of the leaders of a western Indian nationalist movement that inspired cultural and political parties fighting for independence, and that led the country afterwards, such as in the present ruling party, the BJP.

Dayanita Singh, Untitled from File Room, 2013, 24 x 32 cm, courtesy: Steidl

Tilak used language, the press, illustrations, icons and portraits (all popular visual tools preceding video) to provoke anti-colonial resistance. His trial for sedition in 1908 rested on fifteen pieces of evidence, including seven articles he had written and/or published in Marathi for the newspaper Kesari. One can imagine that these are stored away, as in the artist Dayanita Singh’s photograph of rope-bound boxes with the words ‘Secret-F, 1908’ stencilled on the side, as much an indictment as whatever content might lay inside (and unread). Evidence put forward at Tilak’s trial described how to make ‘vernacular weapons’ such as bombs that he otherwise described as ‘amulets’ and ‘charms’.2525 See Christopher Pinney, ‘The Tiger’s Nature, but Not the Tiger: Bal Gangadhar Tilak as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Counter-Guru’, Public Culture, vol 23, no 2, 2011, pp 407–415.View all notes He never denied that he wrote these words. Rather, he dismissed the accusation that his articles caused ‘an actual excitement to disaffection’, and focused on his intention in writing them.2626 N C Kelkar, Full & Authentic Report of the Tilak Trial, 1908, pp 6–7. I thank Christopher Pinney for his suggestion to read the report of Tilak’s trial.View all notes

To dispute his ‘intention to incite disaffection’, Tilak honed in on the identity of speech, on words and their varied meanings, from ‘vigour’ to ‘bureaucracy’. He placed new words under scrutiny that could at once mean ‘tyrannical, despotic or oppressive’ depending on context, or on phrases such as ‘inebriated with the insolence of authority’ – could that not mean ‘blind or dimmed or dull vision’? Could ‘afflicted with sorrow’ actually be ‘indignant by sorrow’, while the ‘patience of humanity’ be understood as ‘human patience’? What about ‘coercive’?2727 Ibid, pp 38–48View all notes

Tilak questioned the English translations of contentious Marathi words that the British had rallied as evidence against him: ‘New meanings are being assigned to words,’ he countered in the trial, ‘did you care to look to that?’2828 Ibid, p 42View all notes

Ferdinand de Saussure promoted a semiotic theory of language and speech in 1915, just around the time of the Bhawal court case and Tilak’s trial. In the third chapter of his Course in General Linguistics, he noted that ‘speech always implies both an established system and an evolution; at every moment it is an existing institution and a product of the past’.2929 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, eds, Wade Baskin, trans, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1966, p 8View all notes Tilak also focused on the variability of speech, which he pinned to a notion of truth: ‘I care for truth… the whole history of this matter must be before us’.3030 Full & Authentic Report of the Tilak Trial, op cit, p 104View all notes It was not truth but the evidence for truth that he contested, especially when words were defined to promote a meaning that condemned him, just as the video of Kumar entwined shouts of protest to entrap.

Truth is supposed to triumph because of the constitution, and therefore the courts of law that govern the land. ‘The PM [Prime Minister of India] tweeted Satyamev Jayate,’ Kanhaiya Kumar said, ‘truth will win’:

I may have ideological differences with the PM but the slogan hasn’t been coined by him, it’s in our constitution. So, I, too, agree that truth triumphs. Truth will win.3131 ‘We will win this fight’, op citView all notes

But it is dependent on people to insist on those truths and to see how, and by what means, they are formed and form, often through the process of archival study and writing.3232 The artist Shilpa Gupta, in 100 Hand Drawn Maps of India (2008), had one hundred people draw the map of India from memory, and of course no two maps were the same.View all notes


In 1910, V K Rajwade founded an institute in Pune specifically for researchers of Indian history called the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal. It is fondly known as the Mandal, and has thousands upon thousands of documents, manuscripts, paintings, prints, coins, weapons and sculptures that researchers gather to read and decipher each morning and evening. These materials are patiently stowed away in filing cabinets, the records wrapped in cloth bundles, the objects displayed in numerous glass cabinets and the books neatly shelved in the library.

The institution offers a platform for publishing its scholars’ findings in both journals and book-length publications. The history of the Mandal is intertwined with the western Indian nationalist movement discussed in the last section. In the decades around 1900, Rajwade and other western Indian nationalists, such as Tilak, located, studied and printed historical texts and images to bolster a movement for independence.

At the Mandal, archival scholarship was self-consciously modelled on the nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke’s positivist, source-based history, with an emphasis placed on the historian’s ability to find or rediscover political and social paths forward through facts.3333 See M R Kantak, ed, Rajwade and his Thoughts, Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal, 1990.View all notes Although Ranke’s renowned student, Karl Marx, mocked his attachment to the archive as ‘mere root-grubbing’ history, an empiricist method inherently allows for historical reassessment.3434 Paul Blackledge, Reflections on a Marxist Theory of History, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2006, pp 23–24View all notes Countering colonial commentators’ characterisation of their civilization as being devoid of art, learning and history, western Indian scholars could offer a new alignment of proofs.3535 On history-writing and collecting practices in western India see Prachi Deshpande, Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700-1960, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.View all notes The colonial education system that had initiated such an historical method, thus inspired the path towards its own demise.3636 In his ‘Theses’ (1940), Walter Benjamin critiqued Ranke and, in the same breath, noted memory as an inspiration to act: ‘To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at moments of danger.’ See Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Harry Zohn, trans, in Illuminations, Harcourt, New York, 1968, p 255.View all notes

Other nationalists, such as Gandhi, ‘rejected the idea that past history was a source for defining future possibilities or orienting present action’, as Sunil Khilnani wrote in The Idea of India (1998).

The British fascination with historical dissertations was expressive of their desire to dominate: history was used to justify colonial rule and to show that past dissensions prohibited the possibility of future unity for India.

Thus, Gandhi wanted to kick ‘this British “habit of writing history” [so] that Indians could release themselves from the cultural harassments of their rulers… ’3737 Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, Farrar Strauss Giroux, New York, 1998, pp 164–165View all notes Gandhi instead turned to materials, instigating a movement for the home-made (swadeshi) versus the industrial, specifically to weave cloth that in turn became paper. Together, these products disseminated his approach to independence, and formed another type of evidence.For there is a quarrel between histories, the narratives and counter-narratives, that disturbs the archive as a place of infallibility and a place of proof. Dayanita Singh has caught this minute-by-minute decay in her photographs of archives – files neatly bound, tucked in folders, lined on steel shelves, bathed by a tube of fluorescent light. Records, letters, proscriptions are neatly documented and the papers stacked, some wrapped and knotted tightly in bundles, others placed within inscribed cloth tied with string, others layered in folders or bound and pressed between wood or cardboard, or maintained in boxes, flat files, shelves or drawers.

Dayanita Singh, Untitled, from File Room, 2013, 24 x 32 cm, courtesy: Dayanita Singh and Steidl

Text on paper is the material recording and dictating society that is to be tended and penalised; it is revered and conversant, but it is also vulnerable. As a motto written on a manuscript in one of these archives dictates:

A book (manuscript) should be adorned like a dear son… safeguarded like a good plot of land… purified daily like one’s own body… and looked upon… like a good friend; it should be tied fast like a culprit sentenced to death and should always be remembered like the name of Hari (god)… If [so] treated, [a book] never undergoes the state of deterioration.3838 Gopal Narayan Bahura, Literary Heritage of the Rulers of Amber and Jaipur, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur, 1976, p 80. I thank Dayanita Singh for bringing this passage to my attention.View all notes

Only if a book is protected will it escape from ‘the state of deterioration’. For the weakness of paper is in its fibres: delicious to insects, fading in sunlight, easy to tear, dampen and decay.Degradation is why manuscripts are both preserved by the spaces that house them – a library, a prison, a home, a temple – but nevertheless dependent on readers and subject to time. The twine binds the boxes securely in Dayanita Singh’s photograph, but have the papers inside become termite-ravaged dust?3939 See Aveek Sen, ‘Paper Dust’, in Dayanita Singh, File Room, Steidl, Berlin, 2013, and Dayanita Singh’s 2016 series of photographs of red cloth bundles of papers, ‘Time Measures’. See also Carolyn Stedman, Dust, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2001.View all notes These are files so lovingly cared for by archivists, so neglected by inattention, that they have ceased to function solely for the words on their pages. Suddenly, the facts within the documents are not the sole interest of the archive. As Singh says, ‘fact is the burden. Take away what you know from an image and see what’s left’.4040 As quoted in Ritika Kochhar, ‘Dayanita Singh’s Latest Exhibition is a Museum of Museums’, Business Standard, 19 December 2015.View all notes

One might imagine that evidence only exists to be read, only has value if it is approved and considered, only appeals if it can shape and form the mind. While this is a primary, critical purpose, take away the words, the facts, the sources of history, and what is left? The materials. Paper and cloth, string and wood, metal and lightbulbs, shelving – here archived in the photograph. Each photograph is one of a series that forms a new archive, Singh’s own File Room. The book, and the space that houses the book, is a construction that is always the same and always different, like our minds and memories – it is the materials that become the evidence to transform.


A two-line poem by the twelfth-century Nirgun saint-poet Gorakhnath addresses such material formation, building the city as it is imagined by the self that houses it word by word, and also emptying it. For ‘nothing is real’, the artist Sudarshan Shetty writes, ‘and everything can be emptied of its meaning’.4141 Personal communication with Sudarshan Shetty, 2016.View all notes The poem was at the centre of Shetty’s recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

In the empty fort, the city, the city, the house, the settlement

Who sleeps, who is awake?

Shoonya Gadh Shahar Shahar Ghar Basti Kon Sota Kon Jage Hai

As imagined by Shetty, this is a city built from bricks and carved wooden pillars, windows and capitals salvaged from forts, cities, houses, and from the quarry or grain-house, the tenement (chawl), the cupola or walkway, the roof left abandoned. Built and emptied.

Sudarshan Shetty, Shoonya Ghar, 2015, video still, single-channel HD video, 59.47 minutes, courtesy: Sudarshan Shetty

The settlement is constructed from such bits left as trash, or memory, to embody, as Shetty told me in the gallery, a ‘human stubbornness not to forget what was made, what has happened, but with a suggestion of collapse’.4242 IbidView all notes For the new buildings are only partial, staged, and awaiting new inhabitants. This architecture is an investigation into an exposed, depleted landscape. The materials that build a city, and are left after its destruction or demise, are like the words that construct a poem, which are like the rehearsals that create a self, which are like the protests and cases that rewrite a nation, which are in turn bound by experience. ‘How one makes sense of my work,’ Shetty writes, ‘through one’s own experience of the world may in itself lie the evidence of its truth.’4343 IbidView all notes

Shetty’s forum is built from the evidence of what is left and what we make of it in order to create a proof of how we build and break through memory, proscription and sensation, what we bring. His constructions invite an enquiry into who is awake or slumbering within, how we are present and absent, just as things can be suffused or emptied of meaning; this is the evidence put forth, rather than that which ‘enters existing courts to decide’.4444 Weizman, Forensis, op cit, p 26View all notes

In the National Gallery of Modern Art one could walk into and around Shetty’s vast installation of structures and view photographs, objects and films. Why this particular Hercules bicycle with ‘Professor’ on one wheel and ‘Dog’ on the other? Why the Merritt sewing machine, the handkerchief with a gun, the two rubber frogs? Why a cricket bat, degrading Styrofoam fruits, two inflatable hearts, a wheelchair and toy rings? Laid out carefully in such a setting, they become props laden with one’s own and others’ stories. ‘You know my wife laughs at me,’ Shetty says. ‘It is all about your childhood, she says, but these are the objects that are familiar to me.’ Objects that evoke continuity, that aid memory, but are not necessarily any longer beloved by society.4545 Partha Chatterjee describes John Locke’s ‘criterion of personal identity’ as ‘the possession of an uninterrupted flow of self-conscious awareness, that is to say, memory’. Chatterjee, Princely Impostor?, op cit, p 120.View all notes

This ruined landscape in which Shetty first constructed his built ruin, filled it with leftover objects and inhabited it with characters betwixt and between is sepia toned. It is also available to watch as a film in another room in the gallery. Figures appear and disappear as a family. A man has returned home because of a death. A young man and woman (lovers? brother and sister?) fight. Another couple show each other tenderness as they curl and uncurl around each other’s bodies on a mattress. There is a newborn, crawling. A grandfather, at once in a wheelchair, at once shrouded, at once burning on the funeral pyre. A gunshot, viscous blood that is splattered by a cell phone. A bicycle. A pail full of water appears in the sky and tips, drenching a young man… and him only (have we all not been there?).

So it is life and death, its cycles, but perhaps it is more akin to the rehearsing of life – who is asleep, who is awake? A daughter, a dancer, practises. She tucks her hair behind her ear, a whisper of vanity, and looks out to the imagined audience to begin again. A child sings while his teacher, or mother, plays the harmonium, correcting his tone. Athletes, wrestlers, climb up and down pillars to build strength with elegance.

Sudarshan Shetty, Navarasa, 2016, nine channel video, from Shoonya Ghar, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, courtesy: Sudarshan Shetty and GallerySKE

The settlement, and the self, cohabitate to practise completion. The actors from the film appear again in another room in the gallery. Dressed in everyday clothes, their faces slowly express the nine emotions, rasas, the juices of life (anger, love, courage, joy, fear, sadness, calm, wonder, disgust), one by one, in slow metamorphosis. The settlement, the self, the self performing the self in the empty quarry just as the actors did in the Bhawal case, and Kumar and Tilak did in response to their arrests for sedition.

Sudarshan Shetty, Untitled, 2016, inkjet print on paper, from Shoonya Ghar, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, courtesy: Sudarshan Shetty

We practise ourselves into ourselves, we build ourselves from remains, but ‘there is a sense of artifice’, Shetty reminds us, which make the photographs of Gandhi marching through Shetty’s ruined buildings in another adjacent room tinged with humour. Gandhi is not rehearsing, but rather awake, in action. A photograph, a piece of evidence, is adjusted to a fiction perhaps more real. ‘Hey there (nation, person, thing)!’ Gandhi seems to say, ‘How are you constructed?’


‘I like the idea that objects can be sourced, and in an archaeological way through commerce,’ Rina Banerjee told me in her studio, stacked with containers. She must always be collecting. ‘The first thing I did was suitcases, lightbulbs, I wanted to use things that were discarded because they wanted to become something.’

Rina Banerjee, A Mad Woman, an Eternal Eve, a Monkey cheated leaped, from limb to limp in open air, curled a mischievous and bulbous melancholy in tail that sailed and with a single cough, a sudden drip, a curtain of bubbles, tears spilled to send land liquids, fertilizer, all fluid migrations leaking abroad and across, 2012, steel structure, plastic horn, fans, 500-watt bulbs, balls, wire and saree cloth, 216 x 96.5 x 99 cm, courtesy: Rina Banerjee and Jacob Lewis Gallery

A string of bunched lightbulbs forms the dangling tail of the sculpture titled A Mad Woman, an Eve, a Monkey…  not just lightbulbs but also steel, plastic horn, fans, balls and saree cloth are joined, stitched and reworked into a creature, an accusation, a woman, and her fierce startled response… cheated leaped, from limb to limp in open air, curled a mischievous and bulbous melancholy in tail that sailed and with a single cough, a sudden drip, a curtain of bubbles, tears spilled to send land liquids, fertilizer, all fluid migrations leaking abroad and across…  the title rips, the gold-painted maps blazoned across the emu eggs and red borders of its lightbulbs.

Matter can be formed by people into shimmering currencies laden with origin, construction and owner(s), but it can, over time, release the ties that bind or allow them to be summoned at will. ‘The materials and objects I choose often have archaic, nostalgic, romantic, and sentimental baggage attached to them,’ Banerjee says, ‘like barnacles they leave residue – even time and migrations weather their very existence.’4646 ‘Interview with Rina Banerjee’, in The Matter Within: New Contemporary Art of India, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California, 2013, p 86View all notes

Banerjee’s studio is an organised warehouse of matter, organic and man-made: relics, textiles, cowrie shells, chandeliers, dolls’ heads (sourced from Germany, actually dug up, unearthed), silk tassels, rooster and peacock feathers, scraps of red floor plans dyed on pink cotton, thread, that have been discarded, lost or were simply for sale.

The meaning of objects never finds stability, because as long as people continue to migrate, travel away from their homes, look away to see new perspectives, the objects they once knew become unhinged and alive.4747 IbidView all notes

Perhaps that is why in assemblage these objects moult from individual parts to bristle in the process of metamorphosis, distil in vibrant matter, and words as beings such as Fury of the fringe, largely restless, faint and fragile at every start, it’s first breath, jumpy and punctured as you see to let it be by way of watching fires grow, keep the wildness of our heartin Banerjee’s hands materialise in brilliant orange coral topped with eyes, feathers and beads, a wooden animal’s head, glass horns, pompoms, silver sharp talons.4848 On how matter is not passive or inert but vital with lively power, see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2010.View all notes

What becomes of stuff, trash, refuse and spirit? Where does it go? These oceans can open, spray scent, come and send away, one of Banerjee’s paintings in blue, black, green and purple, highlighter yellow ink and acrylic on wood, instructs. Water and land, routes and roads, are passages that afford fresh narratives but never cease to flow from what has come and what is coming. Thus, her creatures especially seem to ennoble emotions like the juiciest rasa – coyness, ferocity, pleasure, repose, amphibious sensuality, languor, sly accusation – that are inseparable from the matter that made them.

‘People are naturally full of tricks and when the powerful world presses hard, people get more oily, inventive, and what was a terrible itch can become a triumphant moulting,’ according to Banerjee.4949 ‘Interview with Rina Banerjee’, op cit, p 86View all notes Here, it is not personal identity as such, but rather as Partha Chatterjee writes ‘the continuity of a person in some form, that is, the person’s survival’.5050 Chatterjee, Princely Impostor?, op cit, p 125. In this passage, Chatterjee is considering the work of the twentieth-century philosopher Derek Parfit. The artists Jalal Toufic and Walid Raad have also raised the question of survival regarding objects, particularly the ‘immaterial withdrawal’ of objects in the case of ‘surpassing disasters’; they are withdrawn (or have undergone metamorphosis) and yet remain physically present. See Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster, Forthcoming Books, 2009, p 11; and Eva Respini, ed, Walid Raad, MoMA, New York, 2015.View all notes Reassembled materials can enact that transformation, they dare us to say, as Banerjee does: ‘I am not what I appear to be in my own reflection and inquiry.’5151 Ibid, p 86View all notes

In her sculpture In Mute Witness at the outskirts and out of center she forms a final creased edge of makeshift settlements, a dark and iridescent thorn of horn pierces all home with the hard …  what? Pierces with the hard truth? ‘Truth triumphs, truth will win,’ Kanhaiya Kumar said, quoting the constitution. But this is not a game of truth, or even proof, it is about things that remain and stay charged while receptive to recharge.

Rina Banerjee, In Mute Witness at the outskirts and out of center she forms a final creased edge of makeshift settlements, a dark and iridescent thorn of horn pierces all home with the hard… , 2015, wood spindles, aluminium cloth, waxed nylon, wood, steel armature, Murano Glass horns, rooster feather, silk tassel, cowry shell, hemp cord, silkscreen print silk cloth, red cotton thread, acrylic paint, tribal jewelry, baca fibers, 160 x 114.3 x 111.8 cm, courtesy: Rina Banerjee and Nathalie Obadia Gallery

Banerjee’s Witness is an uncomfortable assemblage: wooden spindles that cannot support, shoulders of iridescent waxed nylon and aluminium cloth foraged as petals, steel armature, Murano glass horns, hemp cord, silkscreen print silk cloth, red cotton thread, acrylic paint, tribal jewellery, baca fibres. She is a list of exhibits admitted into evidence of our assembled selves and nations, our lands and our material remnants, that are present and legible but not necessarily speaking or read, like the photographs in the Bhawal case and the videos of Kanhaiya Kumar, of Tilak’s speech at his trial, of Shetty’s constructed settlement and Hercules bicycle, of the facts waiting to be seen in Singh’s file rooms of amassed paper, until how they are seen, in boxes and folders, becomes the fact itself.

In this article I have considered five categories of evidence: the body, speech, architecture, paper and objects. I have sought to show that there are technological and state forces that seek to quantify and pin down identity, often through reclaiming a singular nationalist history that had actually been pliant. Facts are made into facts through beliefs, which are in turn connected to exterior events and interior realities. Both can shift in perception, yet are subject to the law’s oversight, which, as seen in the Indian Evidence Act, attempts to control intention alongside action. Journalists, politicians, artists have all offered material reminders built from such remains. Some constrain, others construct a defence, while yet others question, caution and make. The fact is a medium that fills and empties and transmits. The witness is evidence of the circulation and migration, of identity at the outskirts of settlements, of rivers, of oceans, of the self that is neither asleep nor awake, a dark and iridescent thorn, a fact.