Poulomi Basu’s Centralia is a disturbing and violent book of a disturbing and violent subject. It’s not for the faint of heart, it’s equally not for the hard of heart. Basu calls it “an Indian docu-fiction” that “…push[es] the boundaries of my own documentary practice – to construct a narrative that borrows from the tropes of science fiction to create a hallucinatory reflection…” And I think she succeeded.
Centralia was Charcoal Book Club’s Photobook of the Month for March 2020, and without them, this book probably wouldn’t have come across my radar.
Centralia takes place in, was photographed in, the Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand, where forest-dwelling indigenous tribes live atop vast deposits of Iron Ore, Bauxite, and Coal… If you’re aware of the United States history with its indigenous population, you already know the story, but now we have cell phones and internet video, though the state has its tools too.
Basu worked on this book for nearly a decade, documenting festivals, protests, activists, and local people, and trying to show the shifting allegiances and competing priorities on all sides. Apparently, the conflict has been going on for 50 years or more, and with all that time, multiple generations, multiple factions, you can imagine the stories Basu heard. At first, there were the indigenous people and the British, then the indigenous people and the Indian State. After some time, Maoists came in. Guerrilla forces form to fight the army and local police; Maoists train local militias. The police or army raid a village, kill, rape, burn; the Guerrillas raid a village, rape, kill, burn; the Militias raid a village, burn, kill rape. There seems to be no objective truth to any of it, everyone lies, tells half-truths, props themselves up a the expense of someone else.
So how to capture this all in a photobook? Well, here Basu and Dewi Lewis got help from Teun van der Heijden, and the result is a dizzying melange of paper stocks and sizes, some bound, some loose, and combined with interviews, transcripts, and other documents. All together, it’s a brilliant attempt, something worthy of study, especially if you’re interested in photobooks.
Overall, and despite the feeling I get in my stomach when I look at Centralia, I rate it a solid 4.5 stars.
Centralia is out of print according to Basu’s website, but copies remain available on the new and used markets and from Charcoal Books as well (at time of writing). It’s an important document of a largely unreported conflict and well worth including in your photobook library.