Amar Kanwar

The Lightning Testimonies


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Not on display

Amar Kanwar born 1964
Video, 8 projections, black and white and colour, and sound
Duration: 32 minutes 31 seconds
Purchased with funds provided by the South Asia Acquisitions Committee 2018


The Lightning Testimonies 2007 is an eight-screen colour and black and white video projection with sound, lasting thirty-two and a half minutes, played on a repeating loop. It chronicles the experiences of women, specifically victims of sexual violence, in relation to conflict in modern South Asia. It is one of the first video works in which Kanwar used multiple channels and deliberate staging to create an immersive, theatrical experience. These strategies went on to characterise his art practice after his initial training as a documentary filmmaker. The Lightning Testimonies takes its title from a sequence in the work, where a flash of lightning illuminates a reddish black sky. Lines in the film, spoken as a voiceover by the artist, introduce his project as being about: ‘How to remember. What remains, and what gets submerged.’ Kanwar’s work shifted from more literal, documentary storytelling to complex and layered cinematic narratives when he was invited to show at Documenta in Kassel in 2002. Following that experience, he expanded on the documentary genre through a growing critical awareness of the politics of the image and of language, particularly poetry.

For The Lightning Testimonies, Kanwar collected the stories of women affected by violence in Punjab, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Manipur and Assam. The recollections begin from 1946–7 when India and Pakistan moved towards independence from the British Empire. In Kanwar’s piece, each of these recollections is narrated on a separate screen, through the voice of the victims. They speak in their regional languages, with English subtitles, adding a polyphonic quality to the viewing experience. Their accounts are interspersed with a voiceover in Kanwar’s own voice, which adds both key information and reflexive commentary.

The work destabilises the myths that construct the modern nation state in South Asia by exposing undocumented or unpunished injustice against its weakest. Rape has been used as a potent means of social repression by the state and by the military in India and Pakistan, and in other parts of the region. The violence that was witnessed by the women who recount their testimonies had a number of different roots: the violent repercussions of the division of India and Pakistan from the British Empire is widely known, but the estimated 70,000 or more women who were abducted, or the undocumented rapes that occurred when Pakistan split to create Bangladesh in 1971 in a bloody war, had remained largely undiscussed. Further violence in the work takes place against the Hindu-Muslim communal riots in the 1990s; caste-based violence in rural India; and the repression of Naxalite, Avidasi and tribal movements in the north-east of India by the Indian Army, which is ongoing. Considered a crime of honour in South Asia, rape is easy to hush up and difficult to discuss. As Kanwar discovered, ‘Women often have to protect themselves and their family from future attacks’ (quoted in Maddox 2014, accessed 6 April 2016). The individual voice of each victim and their testimony stands as a counterpoint to the ‘official version’ of history.

Kanwar’s film was not scripted, and was made over a period of four years of research and travel. The arrival of the less expensive handheld video camera in the 1980s allowed filmmakers of Kanwar’s generation to work directly in the field, leading to a rise in independent and experimental filmmaking. While the content of each testimony unflinchingly recalls terrible violence, Kanwar’s visual treatment maintains a tension between the disturbing words on the screen and the corresponding image. The harrowing accounts are intercut with scenes of nature, archival video footage and archival photographs, as well as abstract images. Kanwar considers nature and inanimate objects to be capable of bearing witness to events, a theme he explored further in later work such as The Sovereign Forest 2012–ongoing, which also combines text, oral testimony, documentary and poetics to create new and empowering ways to represent trauma. His spoken voiceover punctuates the victims’ accounts, not just describing factual events, but also adding poetic reflection, reportage and commentary.

In this non-linear, multi-authored and multivalent presentation, Kanwar plays both with cinematic timing and the historical unfolding of the events he has documented. The experience is theatrical and eschews the more didactic conventions of documentary film-making; here each screen becomes an individual voice and the viewer must make decisions on which narrative thread to follow. When we are told by a witness of the rapes of the Muslim family of Bilkees, Kanwar also films the makeshift terracotta shrine in the woods where it happened, made by local tribals to preserve their memory. In another scene, he describes the memories of an orange tree, a poetic intervention that tempers the horror of what it might have witnessed. In a further sequence, archival footage shows harrowing images of tribal women in Imphal, outside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles in 2004. A group of middle-aged women walked naked to the gates to protest the rape and murder of a young girl, shouting for the army to rape them too, since they were all her mothers. This dissonance, the multiple screens and many resonant voices, creates an atmosphere in which catharsis, survival and bold reclamation are proposed in place of abject victimhood.

There are also moments of silence in The Lightning Testimonies, when certain screens cut to black, or when the image of a window pane or a bird on a branch lingers on a single screen. Kanwar has described this strategy as a means of allowing for intimacy, for the image to be experienced and explored, unfixed, in a ‘continuum’ that challenges what he has described as the ‘matrix of expectation’. He explained further:

I think we all are in search of that tiny image moment that can contain the ocean with all its creatures and sounds. If you find that image moment it can be experienced in many different ways. The objective is to be able to transcend through many levels of ‘seeing’, to free oneself of each successive construct, so each experience has its own unique value … Is there a methodology or a state of being that enables one to search for a set of words that have suddenly reappeared after 30 years? So then, how to listen, how to see.
(Quoted in Jhaveri 2010, pp.91–2.)

The Lightning Testimonies exists in an edition of six with one artist’s proof; Tate’s copy is number four in the edition. It was first shown at documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007, and then in London at the Serpentine Gallery in the exhibition Indian Highway in 2008. Since then, it has been shown numerous times internationally.

Further reading
Shanay Jhaveri, ‘In Conversation with Amar Kanwar’, in Marg, vol.61, no.3, March 2010, pp.90–101.
Georgina Maddox, Amar Kanwar’s searing testimonies attempt to recover submerged narratives of sexual violence in India, 2014,, accessed 6 April 2016.
Rakhee Balaram, ‘Blood on the Tracks’, in In the Aftermath of Trauma, Chicago 2014, pp.80–5., accessed 6 April 2016.

Nada Raza
April 2016

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