Photo Documentation of Om Swaha from the Sheba Chhachhi Archive
Photo Documentation of Om Swaha from the Sheba Chhachhi Archive is a collection of photographs of the street performance Om Swaha. The photographs in this collection were taken by artist and activist Sheba Chhachhi during Om Swaha’s earliest iterations in New Delhi between 1980 and 1982.
Om Swaha, first staged in 1979, emerged out of the Autonomous Women’s Movement in India that gained enormous momentum in the 1980s. It was performed in numerous public spaces, residential neighbourhoods, and universities in New Delhi to protest the rising number of dowry killings in India. Named after a Sanskrit ritual chant used during fire offerings in wedding ceremonies, Om Swaha was conceived and performed by a group of women who gathered real-life, often autobiographical, stories of domestic violence and harassment over dowry. These stories were written into the script of the performance.
In its earliest stagings, the performance was conceptualised and performed by Maya Krishna Rao and Anuradha Kapur in collaboration with a group of feminist activists in Delhi. Om Swaha subsequently went on to be performed in diverse ways and forms across several cities and villages in the country, with the involvement of actors, artists, writers, activists, and women from urban and rural India. Many of the women involved in its conception have made significant contribution to the political and cultural landscape in India, and a number of contemporary artists in the country continue to draw inspiration from the movement.
Sheba Chhachhi was among the few members of the feminist movement who had photographed this performance in its various locations in the early 1980s. Having begun as a documentary photographer and activist, she was deeply engaged in the movement throughout the decade of the 1980s in India. Chhachhi photographed women in demonstrations and campaigns against the widespread oppressions of rape, dowry, religious fundamentalism, domestic violence, and state violence. In her own words, “Across the 80’s, I built up a photographic record of the movement from within, pointing the camera one moment, shouting slogans the next” (as quoted in The KHOJ Book, 2010). Chhachhi’s photographs have been used and published widely in the context of the movement.
In the years that followed, Chhachhi’s practice went on to critically question the archive and the constructed nature of photographic images, which included the “documentary” photograph as well as her own practice as a documentary photographer. This led to her move away from documentary photography to staged collaborative portraits where she revisited some of the activists from the movement, inviting them to take control of the process and decide how they would like to be portrayed. Chhachhi’s Seven Lives and a Dream (1990–91) and Record/Resist (2012) revisit her photographic archive of the time.
The photographs of Om Swaha in this collection are a small part of a much larger archive of Chhachhi’s photographs of the Women’s Movement.
This digitisation project was realised with the generous support of the Serendipity Arts Foundation.