Issue 15
—Autumn 2022.3

Violence: Aesthetics

From Shadows to the Stars

ujjwal kanishka utkarsh


“Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive. ‘From shadows to the stars.’”

This is an excerpt from Rohith Vemula’s suicide letter. Rohith killed himself due to the institutional harassment he faced for being a vocal and a politically active Dalit student. His death caused a wave of protests across India. The state tried to and succeeded in suppressing many of them.

Among the events the state suppressed was a candlelight vigil organised for him in Delhi. Attending this vigil, I started recording some sounds and ended up making a filmic piece, Special Service. This article is a reflection on making the work, contextualising it with the sequence of events around it.

From Shadows to the Stars

Your last wish was that your funeral be silent and smooth. We did not listen to you. Yours will be the one funeral that lasted much longer than most. It evoked anger, rage, frustration, and triggered many young people to take to the streets. In the coming years, the Dalit movement will chant your name and continue to rally behind it across the country.

Good morning,

I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.

I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.

I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense.

My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.

People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits. If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.

Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive.

“From shadows to the stars.”

Uma anna, sorry for using your room for this thing.

To ASA family, sorry for disappointing all of you. You loved me very much. I wish all the very best for the future.

For one last time,
Jai Bheem

I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself.

No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act.

This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this.

Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.

-Rohith Vemula’s suicide letter*

*the letter was published in various newspapers across the country and in online news media in the days following 17th of January 2016- the day Rohith died.

23 February 2016

I remember going to different stores, buying different sizes of candles. There were thick ones, thin ones, long ones, short ones, there were even birthday candles. I picked up quite a few varieties, not coloured ones though. For the next few days, after coming back from the university where I was a regular member of the film-making faculty, I would light these candles and time how long they would last. It had been over a couple of months since the candlelight vigil incident in New Delhi. This vigil, in memory of Rohith Vemula, was not allowed by the state.

On 23 February 2016, a day before the vigil, a huge rally had been organised to commemorate Rohith Vemula’s life and protest his death. Thousands of people had participated. A huge contingent of university students from all over, including Hyderabad Central University—the university where Rohith Vemula was studying at the time. I was conducting a workshop at a film school around three to four hours from Delhi and went down there to attend.  The candlelight vigil was organised at India Gate, which is a typical site for protests allowed by the state. I went there with an activist friend of mine, who was connected to the people organising it. A former student of mine who was visiting Delhi also joined in. By the time we reached the gathering, the place was already surrounded by lots of police vehicles. I asked my student to leave because I wasn’t sure how the situation would evolve, and I wasn’t sure if she was feeling the moral pressure of being there because of me. I couldn’t take responsibility for someone if the situation would turn volatile. Interestingly, my activist friend was trying to do the same thing with me.

Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika Vemula, was sitting next to candles that were being lit, surrounded by hundreds of students. The police were on one side, with more and more reinforcements coming in. From police vans to jeeps, from riot control vehicles to minibuses and water canon vehicles. At some point, the police received orders and started to clear the space. The candles were trampled, people were pulled away, loaded onto Delhi public transport buses, which had LED boards brightly displaying “00 Special Service”.

There were at least five or six buses completely loaded, packed in such a way that there was absolutely no space left to push another person inside. They were sent to nearby police stations. Radhika and some of the people with her were sent off to one further away. The rest of us who were able to somehow evade being caught, were chased away with swinging batons and police running after us. Some were hit, some got hurt, I barely escaped swinging batons a few times. At one point, stumbling over a brick as I was running away saved me from their weapons. By this time, my friend and I had split to make running away easier. After finding her again, we both walked into the police station to join everyone else from the vigil and to be voluntarily detained. The courtyard of the intimidating building was full of protestors. Some were playing badminton, some had lit candles, there was some singing or chanting and generally the tension dissipated over the next couple of hours. After a few more hours, we would all be let go.

At some point I recorded some sounds on my smartphone, without real intent or thought even. I later asked my activist friend to send me some more recordings. And here I was now, months later at my flat in Bangalore, in this very peaceful quaint area of the city. The streets were quiet at this time in the evening. With very pleasant weather outside, I was going through these recordings, video clips, news clips, (re)reading Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, going through them over and over again, as the thick long candle took hours to burn. Over dinner, over drinks, over listening to these recordings, over taking breaks in between watching television shows, over chatting with friends, over just sitting doing nothing, I would light candles every evening for the next few weeks—at different positions, with different fan speeds, with doors open, doors closed, with windows open, windows closed, at different heights. All to be able to get to a candle that looked apt and had a burn duration that felt right. I was not sure what duration would be suitable, but somehow seeing the candle burn had a sense of rhythm or duration that felt just right. Especially when going over and over all the recordings and clips I had accumulated by now.

Eventually, I figured that a certain candle in a particular position, with a specific fan speed, with the doors open could potentially be the one. I had managed to convince the university to acquire some Canon C100 cameras for the film department, and they had just arrived. Although regulations did not allow it, I brought one home for some “test shots”. That evening, unlike my previous evenings, I let the quiet be, and in trying to set up everything it became much later in the evening. I placed the candle at a delicate balance, just inside the door frame, but far enough from the breeze outside not to blow it out instantly. I had to use a cardboard box to raise the height of the candle so that the door frame didn’t block the frame’s perspective and prevent the railing of the balcony from being visible. This also made the single out of focus streetlight visible. Resetting the camera composition, to situate the candle as centred as I could, I rolled the camera. It was already 2 or 3 am, and silent in this suburban area.

Hoping for this candle to be able to burn through in one go, I lit it. This one for Rohith.

Traces Left Behind

In the current political climate in India, with the present Hindu-right regime, the state is very blatant in its suppression of dissent. There is growing intolerance of freedom of speech, the food that is eaten, the beliefs people have, and a general dismissal of other views based on a pre-conceived, jingoistic notion of “Hinduism”. In the process, the ideas of the state and the nation have collapsed into one another, and anything said against the state is considered anti-national and unlawful.

In this situation, the necessity to protest and be able to have some voice of dissent has become even more urgent. As a result, there have been major protests in India over the past few years. In this situation, it was almost natural that I found myself part of several protests. Protests ranging from farmers’ protests, to protests against state-run art places being privatised, to protests about a critical journalist’s mysterious death, to Dalit anti-caste protests.

Over the past few decades, many Dalit students killed themselves due to problems in and with different universities and institutes across India. Most of them have gone unnoticed and been ignored. Rohith Vemula’s suicide was not one which was ignored though; a charismatic leader and very active and vocal in the campus politics at Hyderabad Central University, he had over the years been harassed by the university administration for his political positions. His death caused a furore; there has been a strong Dalit social movement in several parts of the country, but Rohith’s death added fuel to the fire. Several Dalit anti-caste protests have taken place since, and it is very common to evoke Rohith as a symbol of resistance. His mother has been very active and has encouraged Dalit protests herself.

That evening, going to the candlelight vigil, I had not gone with any clear ideas or notions of making a film. The point at which I started recording sounds was very spontaneous, without any clear intent. But being there, right in the moment, experiencing the brutality of the suppression of the event, one obvious idea that emerged was the need to find an intersection between my film-making practice and this act of protesting and/or of voice of dissent.

There were several questions that started to emerge through the process. Most protest/political films and film-makers, especially those critical of the state, end up applying a very journalistic approach. In trying to reveal the facts of state atrocities, they may be well-researched and present the argument well, but there is no room left for interpretation or experience. With an activist self-righteousness in communicating the message, the audience are told everything that is to be told.

I had been working with the idea of the observational and trying to work on the way we see and experience the world around us. For me this way of looking, of listening, of experiencing—which is trying to look beyond the statistical, beyond notions of data and truth—is not even trying to tell a story, or work from a position of building an argument: it is a form of protest itself.

In trying to bring together my film-making practice with the act of protest, I wanted to stretch the idea of “the observational”. Not necessarily looking at the events themselves, but at what happens before and after. And to look at the spectacle itself with a sensorial lens; to see the insights that one can gain of not just “understanding” a protest but to “feeling” it, from the lead up to the protest to the protest itself and the traces left behind.

In the conscious effort of trying to shoot some of the protests I was involved in, I realised this approach was easier said than done. I found myself getting carried away easily by the emotionality of the situation, and with it the gaze became even more one of spectacularisation. Though I don’t believe that this was the case throughout the protests, there were moments I really couldn’t tear away from the emotional sway of the situation.

Another added layer of complication was my own privileged position within Indian society. This was in fact furthered by the presence of the camera. At one point, in one of these protests, when everyone else was being detained, I was given an option to be detained or not due to the presence of the camera. A situation like this really made me question these attempts of shooting protests. When my own presence was adding to the spectacle of the situation, how possible was it to be able to look beyond the spectacle of the protest?

This particular evening of the candlelight vigil on 23 February 2016, was in many ways a trigger for and beginning of a journey for me. A journey in which I have been trying to engage with the Dalit anti-caste protests and the social movements they are situated in or emerging from. It brought to the fore my own privileges. Being a man from a relatively upper-caste situation, what could I do, or how could I meaningfully engage with Dalit anti-caste protests? In and through these engagements, I have been trying to explore whether a film can be made around protest that goes beyond the spectacle, not just trying to make an argument, or prove a point, instead trying to just be with the protest.

In doing so, I have considered if it is possible at all to look at, hear, experience a protest without falling into the traps of what Chantal Mouffe refers to as an antagonistic us-versus-them dynamic. What kind of understanding could be gained from looking at a protest like this approach, which is concentrating on informal learning, on the gestures, on the inaudible voices, on rhythms of living, being and working. Can cinema be challenged to go beyond the aural-visual layer or surface to make visible the invisible, and give sound to the inaudible? Is making a piece on “protest” without necessarily telling the audience what to think, but for them to experience the life behind it, and letting them decide, an act of protest itself?

Is lighting a candle to mourn the death of Rohith Vemula a form of protest?

As I lit that candle for the shot on that particular day, it was already quite late. Being a particularly breezy day, it took more than a few takes to get a candle burning through in a single take. All I was left with after the shot was done was the quiet night, soon to be dawn, and packets and packets of candles of different heights, different thickness, different sizes. All in white and waiting for the sun to rise.

Illustration by Deepani Seth

Thanks to Coby-Rae Crosbie, Janneke Van Dalen and Thomas Crowley for going through multiple iterations of the article.

Thanks to the team @ PARSE Journal [Gerrie van Noord, Jyoti Mistry, Rose Brander and Tristan Bridge] for their insights, comments, and patience through the process of writing and publishing this article.


ujjwal kanishka utkarsh

ujjwal kanishka utkarsh is a PhD-in-Practice candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. he makes films and has been working towards a form that emerges out of the observational cinema tradition. This approach for him is not geared towards ethnographical or anthropological intent, but rather at being able to access the sensorial experiential reality. With this approach, he has looked at various themes and in his ongoing work he focuses on looking at protests in India.