Here Lies…A Misreckoned Empire

At the periphery of Kankaria Lake and the city zoo in Ahmedabad, traffic sounds drown out as one enters a patch of green which the occasional city guide or rickshaw wallah may refer to as the ‘Dutch gardens.’ A stray dog does a lazy yoga stretch and attempts to leap onto a rectangular tombstone dating back to the mid-17th century.  Just then, a security guard emerges – as caretaker of this protected site much of his work entails blowing a whistle and rapping his stick against fractured plinths. He passes a dense network of domed tombs, pyramidal cenotaphs and gravestones, scaring away an assembly of crows at a nearby tree. From beneath a cusped arch, giggles escape….The pair decides to continue their romantic tryst elsewhere.

These are scenes from a video installation titled Empire: 22º00′ N 77º00′ E. Despite having spent my childhood years in Ahmedabad, this tomb complex and the Dutch colonial legacy in Gujarat remained invisible to me. Having moved to the Netherlands over a year ago, it was at an art space in Rotterdam that I ‘discovered’ this site remotely through a video installation which is part of the ongoing project, Empire: Legacy of the World’s First Corporation, comprising of a series of films & educational outreach initiatives led by artist-filmmaker duo, Kel O’ Neill and Eline Jongsma.

Colonial histories are often articulated as spectral presences – a past that refuses erasure and uncannily seeps into the flows of present-ness. The Dutch East India Company or Verengde Oostindische Compangnie (VOC) was a sprawling mercantileempire for over two centuries, as trading posts multiplied the role of the company transformed into a form of politico-economic colonialism that characteristically resonates with the neo-imperial ventures of our Capitalist present.

For Eline Jongsma, trained as a visual artist and of Dutch-Indonesian decent, this project is a way of contextualizing an inherited lineage as well as a means to address current socio-political realities of the Netherlands that lean toward hyper-Nationalism and Islamophobia. Kel O’ Neill is an American filmmaker, invested in exploring the nature of contemporary imperialism and global corporatization through the lens of the VOC and its antecedents. Their blog states: “Armed with a $500 HDV camera and a laptop, we’ve set out to collect the stories of individuals and communities whose lives are still in some way defined by the Dutch colonial endeavor.”[i] Since the project began in 2010 they have travelled to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and most recently, South Africa.

What is unique about this itinerant research-based project is a nuanced approach to story-telling – a poetic yet critical mode of stitching together personal narratives with social ‘facts’ and frayed histories. The video installations are most often two-channel productions, which begin as on site-explorations, conversations, the capturing of a song or performative tradition, the material influence of a religious ritual or an architectonic structure. These juxtaposed narrations are without value judgments, they bring in a fresh perspective while leaving one with some unanswerable reflections.

The form of split visual navigation, followed in the film produced in India deploys a metaphorical ‘absence’ at the graveyard yet also the rekindling of a forgotten history by making a visit to a factory in Tamil Nadu that exports custom-made tombstones to the Netherlands.


(To be published)

[i] The ‘Empire’ Project Blog:


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