Nirbhaya Gang-rape case, 2012
One young woman faced an unspeakable crime. In its aftermath, a legion of survivors and their allies gathered to fight against the everyday violence. What began in one country became a story that spread around the globe.
Through the art of the anti-memorial, a new vision of the victim can form into a hero — one reborn from extreme trauma into a symbol of hope.
Nirbhaya Anti-Memorial Project
Feminist artist, Pritika Chowdhry reimagines Nirbhaya as a superheroine whose superpower is that she can eradicate sexual violence in any form, anywhere.
These charcoal drawings are made to look like comic book panels. The superheroine figure is also printed on larger-than-life-size sheer fabric panels, complete with the iconic Anonymous mask made a symbol of female empowerment with bindi, kohl, nose stud, and lip color.
The Nirbhaya Sheroes
Portrait drawings of Asha Devi, and her group of sheroes - IPS Officer Chaya Sharma, activist lawyer Seema Kushwaha, and anti-rape activist Yogita Bhayana. These are the sheroes who fought to get justice for Nirbhaya.
They now help other rape victims get justice through the Nirbhaya Jyoti Foundation.
The Anonymous Nirbhayas
A tribute to the multitude of Anonymous Nirbhayas, and the hundreds of thousands of protesters that fought for justice for Nirbhaya, they are represented with their own mask, adorned with a bindi, lip color, kohl, and nose stud; an Indianized and feminized version of the Anonoymous Guy Fawkes mask.
This project provides a myriad of visualizations to recontextualize the iconic mask for new purposes — so that we may all channel the superheroine Nirbhaya in ourselves.
December 16, 2012: Her Name Is Nirbhaya
9 years ago, a 23-year old woman was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus by 6 men. Her name was Nirbhaya.
The widespread story ran through India and abroad. Inspired by her courage, Indian women and men flooded the streets of Delhi in protest. India Gate became the architecture of protest as the demonstrators flooded there for days and weeks. The monument of India gate is Their march for justice was also a march of the victims of sexual violence who refused to be a victim anymore.
13 days after her brutal gang rape, Nirbhaya succumbed to her injuries. She died on December 29th, 2012. The tragedy of a young woman's life ended in such a depraved way shook India and the world.
The Fallout and the Fight Ahead
Asha Devi, the grieving mother of Nirbhaya, led a fight against her daughter's rapists. But the battle grew into something larger than any single crime of rape. It became a crusade against all rapists.
And now, Asha Devi stands as the embodiment of a new Mother India. She became the image of rage and struggle against all rapists.
It is from this bitter and brutal soil that a resistance grew into a movement. And it continues to grow today.
December 16, 2021: Our Name Is Nirbhaya
Nirbhaya Protests at India Gate in New Delhi
Feminist artist and curator, Pritika Chowdhry of The Partition Memorial Project has launched the Nirbhaya Project to memorialize Nirbhaya, her mother, and all those who have suffered like her.
Nine years after the events in New Delhi, the Nirbhaya case remains a critical turning point for the nation and its public discussion on the causes, impact, and prevention of rape. It inspired activism, it prompted generous support from survivors and allies around the world, and it remains a touchstone event.
The artist's perspective reimagines Nirbhaya, which in Sanskrit means fearless, as a comic book superheroine character with the superpower to eradicate rape and sexual violence.
To this day, we demand justice for both the remembered and the forgotten victims, those named and unnamed. And it is under the name of Nirbhaya that we do so.
The Anti-Memorial: Using Visual Arts to Reimagine Our Past
The Nirbhaya Project presents a body of work that confronts this history and uses it as a tool of empowerment. This collection does what no officially sanctioned narrative can do: hand over the reigns of history to the viewers themselves.
Towards this end, Chowdhry presents three series, each retelling and reframing history in a new way.
An online Monument
These three art installations represent the possible futures that arise out of a single history. This online monument may turn into a forthcoming monument with your support. We are not forced to walk a single path. Instead, we can transform our collective past into a chosen future, so long as we are active participants in the present.
The production of counter-memory is a vital way for artists to create these new pathways out of shared material. While any officially sanctioned history exists to create a frozen view of our history, anti-memorials present a counter-memory that allows viewers to rework these events for our own needs, our own ends.
Unearthing the Counter-Memory of Nirbhaya
In the case of Nirbhaya, the counter-memory is utilized to reframe what this horrifying moment can mean. It does not seek to deny the collective memory-making process that happens around trauma, rather it seeks to rediscover the possibilities within those memories.
As a representation of all those women who have suffered like her, Nirbhaya stands as a symbol that can begin to form a common language. She can become a sign through which we speak about the extreme and everyday violence women around the world face.
This is the power of counter-memory. It allows us to actively engage and negotiate our history, outside the realms of power.
India Gate: Architecture of Protest
Nirbhaya Protests at India Gate in New Delhi
India Gate is a significant monument in New Delhi. It is where the iconic Republic Day Parade is held, and it leads to the Rashtrapati Bhavan or President's Secretariat. The symbolism of this location is important to understand why the protesters chose to demonstrate there. It is a site of patriotism, and India Gate commemorates the British Indian Army martyrs of World War II with the Amar Jawan Jyoti.
Coincidentally, Nirbhaya's real name is Jyoti Singh, though that was not known at the time of the protests. By protesting repeatedly at India Gate, the protestors made this one gang rape a national issue and a matter of national pride. In effect, the protesters appropriated this nationalist monument into a counter-monument for Nirbhaya.
Engaging People in the Process
As an artist, Chowdhry engages historical subject matter as a tool for social activism and education. These works exist in contradiction to conditions that we have been made to understand are set, defined, and beyond our control.
By democratizing history-making, we are all made architects of meaning in this forthcoming monument.
When you view the work and engage in dialogue about these events, you join the project, build its potential, and form your own counter-memory.
The Comic Book Aesthetic
The artist Chowdhry borrows tropes and imagery from comic books to unite all three series. Just as history is a mythologizing field, so are superhero stories a modern form of myth making.
In Superheroine Nirbhaya, a literal masked crusader with superpowers.
In The Nirbhaya Sheroes, the idea of hero-making is combined with older lionization practices in human history.
In The Anonymous Nirbhayas, the Guy Fawkes mask (made famous by the Alan Moore comic book V for Vendetta) is reappropriated for a new revolution.
Each of these art projects, then, works to represent Nirbhaya and her story as a superhero who appears in time to fight a system unable to prevent or adequately punish rape.
This is part of the artist's continual engagement with intertextuality, but it is not done out of mere habit. The comic book gives a contemporary mode with which to turn Nirbhaya into a symbol of trauma and resilience, a character that can be a hero precisely because she was a victim.
History and Heroism
A horrific scene on a bus in New Delhi led to an outcry. That outcry led to a movement. That movement leads us into new possibilities for human life.
This is the power of events in time, the power of history.
And if we continue to engage our history as something living, contingent, and up to us to form, we are given a superpower ourselves.