Lunch lecture by Dr Atreyee Sen

Torture and laughter: Political incarceration and the art of performing happiness in an urban Indian prison

Lunch lecture by Dr Atreyee Sen, Lecturer in Contemporary Religion and Conflict, Department of Religions and Theology, University of Manchester.


This paper explores the politics of prison art through oral testimonies of former female cadres of a Maoist-Naxal uprising in 1970s India. It specifically focuses on guerrilla women who were captured, incarcerated and pitilessly beaten by prison officials in the women's correctional facility under the surveillance of the Alipore Central Jail in Calcutta, a city in eastern India. My ethnography attempts to reconstruct a volatile urban past through re-memorising the experiences of political detainees, and employs women’s voices to revive indigenous and informal notions of justice and resistance (at a time when ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘civil rights’ were abstract ideals in Indian political practices). My research shows how prisoners organised crude musical performances, played 'happy families' and enacted spontaneous puppet shows in the face of torture and anguish, primarily to challenge their brutal encounters with various disciplinary orbits of the post-colonial penitentiary. I argue that these performances, coordinated by both convict and guerrilla women, exhibited an affective and resilient political aesthetic, which in turn contested repressive cultures of confinement at a critical stage in the political history of the region. Taking a small step away from penological research on the management of political imprisonment, the paper attempts to highlight how punitive and silencing state practices (Scarry 1985) and the governance of social enclosures (Deleuze 1992) can be defied by creative cultural imagination. Thus my analysis eventually contributes towards an anthropology of human herding. It narrativises a peculiar relationship between rough artistic enactments and survival within a non-western detention system which authorised routine violence on the bodies of the 'dangerous others', and yet these spaces of regimentation continue to remain camouflaged by their intangible location in the wider public imagination.

Time: 18 November, 12:00-13:00
Place: NIAS, CSS, room 18.1.08

Feel free to bring your own lunch. There will be coffee/tea.