Ishan Tankha, A Peal of Spring Thunder, Chhattisgarh, 2007–15

There is a lesson that every child in India learns at school: the narrative tableaux, from the early life of the Buddha, called “the four sights.” On his first journey outside the palace walls, Prince Siddhartha saw an old man bent with age, then a man afflicted with disease, then a corpse, and, finally, an ascetic. Siddhartha had so far been protected from the world because of a prophecy made at his birth that he would renounce home and seek enlightenment. The four sights awoke him to suffering, and the prophecy was fulfilled: Siddhartha left home, and, at the end of his search, he became Gautama the Buddha, or the Enlightened One.

When I was young, I received this story as a fatalistic narrative about inevitability. But later, this story took a turn and became one about visual culture: it matters what you see, and what you see can change you and determine the history of the world.

Given the scenes of suffering in India, it would be right to ask, Why aren’t there more Buddhas? But there is also a different question: How is one to see the world as it is?

Delhi-native Ishan Tankha is a regular observer of the power of the state and the persistence of protest. When I recently corresponded with him, he had been up since five AM, camera at the ready, following one of the leaders of the farmers protesting the new government laws that favor corporations. These farmers have been stopped from entering the capital; tens of thousands have camped at the Delhi border for months since the demonstrations began in November 2020.

Tankha has long been working to depict news that is rarely covered by Delhi’s mainstream media outlets. A Peal of Spring Thunder (2007–15) is the result of a long labor documenting the presence of guerrillas in Chhattisgarh, a state in central India. These insurgents are often called Naxalites, after Naxalbari, a small village in Bengal where, in 1967, an uprising of landless workers inaugurated a chain of peasant rebellions in different parts of India. The rebels in Naxalbari were inspired by Maoist ideology and the idea of an armed peasantry capturing state power. The title for Tankha’s project echoes the report from Radio Peking in June 1967 hailing the Naxalbari uprising: “A peal of spring thunder has crashed over the land of India.”

When he went to Chhattisgarh the first time, in 2007, Tankha had expected and hoped to find “rebels in a thick jungle, walking in a single file at dusk, hidden campsites and weapons, an ambush.” Instead, the man who came for him in the village had a bow and arrow. He wore only a lungi wrapped around his middle and a torn vest. The landscape was dusty and bare. Nearly everyone Tankha met was suffering from, or had recently had, malaria. In these photographs, we see the guerrillas Tankha traveled with. Smiling tenderly with rifles at hand, they present themselves as doing what needs to be done, including the business of quietly asserting their humanity.

Since 2009, the guerrillas in Tankha’s pictures have been hunted by approximately one hundred thousand Indian counterinsurgency troops. In 2010, these insurgents were described by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh as “the biggest internal security challenge” facing India. Not all of the people in A Peal of Spring Thunder are armed fighters; many of them are just the rural populace, dirt-poor, a part of the Indigenous Adivasi population of India, people who the troops often also mistreat and torture as if they were not citizens of India in any meaningful sense. The land that the Adivasis farm is mineral-rich, and most of their struggle involves opposing the corporations eager to displace them. In Tankha’s series, you see the land, you see mines, but you do not see schools or hospitals—there are no schools or hospitals. There are roads, but, critics say, the roads exist to bring in troops and take out the minerals.

Tankha’s work on this project, not least because it has been carried out over such a long time, is in a variety of formats: 35mm, black-and-white negatives, 4-by-5-inch color negatives, digital images. When traveling to Chhattisgarh on assignment, or sometimes on his own steam, Tankha used whatever materials, including cameras, he could access. Formally, this gives variety to his work. It promotes a form of seeing that is opposed to the singular, mechanized gaze of the state or the strictly binary reporting of the hypernationalist media that offers endless paeans to the military-industrial state.

All photographs by Ishan Tankha from the series A Peal of Spring Thunder, Chhattisgarh, 2007–15
Courtesy the artist

When looking at these images, I see that Tankha makes visible the state’s victims. But he has also exposed, as it were, the state’s enemies. When I asked him whether it wasn’t dangerous for the cadre to have their pictures taken for publication, Tankha answered that when he showed concern, the fighters pointed out that “if they were to be caught by the security forces, they would most likely be killed on the spot, picture or no picture.” Which, I guess, is also a way of seeing the world as it is.

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 243, “Delhi: Looking Out/Looking In,” under the title “A Peal of Spring Thunder.”