“Calcutta is the Berlin of India,” says Sujatro Ghosh of his hometown. “It has people from all over the world, all the artists, good food, and a lazy attitude.” It was there that the 27-year-old visual artist formed his political identity. “There is a culture where people sit on the streets and talk about politics. Everybody has an opinion.” Born a middle-caste son of a secular Hindu teacher, Sujatro forged his identity as a proud feminist and defender of minority rights. He was inspired by the strong independent women in his family, particularly his grandmother, who faced down social stigma to raise a family without a husband.
But life changed in 2014 when Sujatro left Calcutta to study Photography and Visual Communications in Delhi, India’s capital and centre of power. It was just as Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became prime minister and India’s cultural and political landscape began shifting to the right. “This is when I decided to make art that was explicitly political,” he recalls. In 2017, following his studies, Sujatro began travelling around the country photographing female victims of sexual violence wearing cow masks, posting the pictures on Instagram.
Is it safer to be a cow than a woman in India?
“With the election of the right-wing government, the everyday cow on the street became a political animal,” he explains. “Many states outlawed selling beef, and people (mostly non-Hindus) accused of eating it were lynched.” Meanwhile, there has been a long-running epidemic of sexual violence in India, with a woman raped approximately every 15 minutes. The Cow Mask Project was a dual-pronged critique of contemporary Indian society, asking “Is it safer to be a cow than a woman in India?”
The impact of the work was explosive. Within a month international press were reporting on it, and the backlash started al- most immediately. “People started criticising me in public saying I was disrespecting my (Hindu) religion,” says Sujatro. He started getting phone calls from unknown numbers. “People would threaten me, saying they knew where I lived, and where I studied, and that they were going to kill me.” Then one day came a tweet by a Delhi influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers calling for Sujatro to be lynched. “This was really scary, because there were already instances of people being lynched from a single WhatsApp message or tweet less than 100km from where I was living.”
At the end of 2017 Sujatro moved back to Calcutta out of concern for his safety. But it wasn’t long before he ran into trouble there too. Prime Minister Modi had made it mandatory for all cinemas to play the national anthem before showing a film. One time while attending a movie, Sujatro refused to stand for the song (“I can’t show respect for an anthem which excludes entire sections of the country and its people.”) He was chased out of the auditorium by a group of men and forced to find refuge in a local police station. It was the beginning of a series of violent threats: people started following Sujatro home, and men came to his front door. Lookouts were posted on the end of his street and he began staying at friends’ houses. “I thought twice before meeting people. I didn’t know who to trust,” he recalls.
Sujatro was particularly afraid about his family becoming a target, and that’s when he began thinking about leaving the country. “It was difficult. I had built a successful career as an independent artist in India, and had connections and notoriety there. I thought, ‘do I really go to another country and start from scratch again?’ But in the end I didn’t have another option.” He discovered the Martin Roth Initiative, which grants residencies in Germany for persecuted artists, and successfully applied for a scholarship, arriving in Berlin in November 2019.
Now on the outside looking in, Sujatro has been frustrated at how his home country is perceived in Germany. “The image of India is whitewashed. When people think of India they think of gurus, incense, yoga and Gandhi. It’s especially warped in places like Berlin, where there’s a yoga studio on every corner.” In response, Sujatro continues to expose what he sees as the emergence of fascism in the subcontinent.
“India has a media industry which has sold out, an extreme concentration of wealth among maybe five families, no credible political opposition, journalists and activists targeted by ‘anti-terrorism’ laws and imprisoned without trial, and new Nuremberg-style laws.” As an example of the latter he cites the recent anti-conversion law passed in two states controlled by Modi’s BJP Party, which makes it illegal for a Hindu to marry a Muslim without giving notice to the state several months in advance and acquiring a permit. It is easy to fall foul of the law, and people have been sentenced to up to 10 years imprisonment and their marriages deemed legally null and void.
I can’t show respect for an anthem which excludes entire sections of the country and its people.
Sujatro’s latest project, Geography of Hate, draws attention to these threats. He invited participants with similar histories of persecution to watch a film he made about India while they were connected to a Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) sensor. The GSR measures the intensity of emotional arousal via changes in sweat gland activity, and creates a graph from the results. “It kind of reads your mind in a way. I wanted to know what they felt upon seeing the video and the graphs of the others, and film their reactions.” He has turned the experiment into an exhibition which will soon open at the Oyoun cultural centre in Neukölln.
Besides protesting via art, Sujatro organises demonstrations opposing India’s slide towards authoritarianism. But he believes Indians are not safe from their government, even in Berlin. “I know that the Indian embassy surveils the Indians here,” he says. Despite the fact that Indians are not considered priorities for asylum or visas in Europe, Sujatro was able to gain a year’s extension to his residence. After that, his future hangs in the balance, though a return to India is scarcely an option. At least for now, Berlin is Sujatro’s version of Calcutta.