Chicken Run excavates an unusual story of war.

The mysterious Mr H did not want to return to his home country when the Armistice Agreement halted the Korean War in 1953. This fictional photo-narrative traces his history from humble beginnings in rural Korea, through imprisonment as a Korean prisoner of war, to life in the Demilitarised Zone under the care of the Custodian Force of India, and setting up as a chicken farmer in Madras in the late 1950s.

Chicken Run is part of the Nayars’ archival art and storytelling project Limits of Change.

My life is strangely entangled in a war that happened far away, long before I was born. My father was one of the soldiers from the Custodian Force of India (CFI) who went to bring peace to Korea in 1953.

A few years ago, when we received a box of old photographs found in an abandoned chicken farm in Chennai, the Museum Director gave it to me, to add to my own collection from my father’s albums.

The photos from the farm belonged to the elusive Mr H, a former Korean Prisoner of War (POW) who, for several years, made his home in Chennai. I have grown obsessed with piecing together a map of Mr H’s life, whose outlines are drawn by a story of war…

Curator P

Chennai, Sept 2021

A Story of War
2min 29sec

ROAD TO GEOJE-DO

As the war went on, civilians and soldiers were captured from across the country by the opposing North and South Korean forces and their allies. Mr H evaded capture several times, sometimes by seconds. But eventually, he too was caught.

MISSING TEXT

Like hundreds of his fellow soldiers, Mr H was taken to the prisons on Geoje island.

He wondered whether his sweetheart Ms K had been captured as well. There was no way of knowing for sure.

THE INTENSE IRRATIONALITY OF A DREAM

Despite the horrors of life in the camps - the beatings, the clashes between the communists and non-communists, the deprivation of food and rest and sleep - for Mr H it came to mean a period of eerie calm, of eating, waiting and surviving.

He also heard desperate stories from other prisoners … of the bombing of the port of Wosang that went on for days and weeks and more, of refugees fleeing. He felt there was no hope of seeing his family again.

FOXES HAVE A SINCERE INTEREST IN PROLONGING THE LIVES OF THE POULTRY

Almost two years after incarceration, finally, there was talk of going home. Some men rejoiced, but for men like Mr H - village destroyed, family scattered - where was home? As a ‘captured’ soldier he feared for his life in the North. As for the South, Mr H knew that his ‘Communist’ days would forever haunt him there. He became one of the thousands of undecided POWs who were taken to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) to await an uncertain fate, watched over by the Indian guards of the CFI.

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NO-MAN’S LAND

Life in the DMZ, was a complex game played between the barbed wires of the chicken run. Mr H tried to evade the dangerous hostility from the non-repatriate soldiers in his camp, while assessing the intentions of the CFI guards outside.

Building Enclosures
1min 55sec

1953/1958

As it turned out, whether in Hind Nagar, DMZ, or years later in Pallikaranai, Madras, Mr H had a habit of making unlikely friends.

On a side note, one mystery - the paucity of images of Mr H’s life in the DMZ - was solved when I read General Thimayya’s memoir: “…in the case of photographers, we knew the prisoners would object to being photographed, fearing that identification of individual prisoners might mean that their families would suffer.”

CHANGING SEASONS

In the winter, when the earth of the DMZ and its still-undiscovered landmines are covered in snow, the CFI try to take the North Korean POWs to the Explanation Tents so they can decide whether to return home, or stay in the South. Many POWs do not want explanations, but Mr H agrees to it.

As he walks back, he sees smoke from the coal burners in their tents drifting up. A skeletal tree with an abandoned nest. Spots of colour against the grey sky, birds resting at the DMZ before resuming their long journeys.

One day, not long after, he climbs over the barbed wire fence around his enclosure, and surrenders to the CFI. He asks to be taken to a neutral nation. None will have him. He says India will do.

UNBUILT ARCHIVES

Every time I came across the image of a photographer in the Korean War, it was a reminder. Of how much of our history we forget. How we don’t create archival photo-libraries. How we don’t keep available the materials that our historians and researchers and artists need, to make us remember again.

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Chapter 3

Compasses in their eyes

COMING TO INDIA

I’ve always wondered how migratory birds navigate the skies. Recently, I read that birds can ‘see’ the earth’s magnetic field, their eyes containing miniaturized compasses made up of a pair of entangled electrons.

ReCrossing Waters
2min 44sec

The plane for South America Mr H did not get on in 1956…

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A NEW PLAY PEN

When Mr H decided to build a life in Madras, he discovered a new profession, poultry farming - and the time to pursue an old passion, photography. In what we now call the H Box - the catalyst from the abandoned farm that had been handed to me - are well-thumbed photographs, and among these are what I believe to be pictures of Mr H himself, perhaps taken by his second-in-command on his farm, Mr N.

DICE IN THE BOX FOR ANOTHER THROW

When we developed, as best as we could, the negatives in the H Box, they gave us a glimpse of what Mr H did in his spare time. The painstakingly recorded images of the Egret’s Indecisions are my favourite.

As for the list of birds written down in a little book… Over the past year I’ve been visiting the area with Mr K, a local birder-photographer, to see if I can see through Mr H’s eyes and spot all his friends.

Undecided, 1958, Pallikaranai

MADRAS 1950s, KOSANG 1940s

Whether we migrate from villages to cities, from the outskirts to the centre, or from wartorn countries to war-stalled countries, we carry the blueprints to rebuilding our homes. Over the years, as I set up different installations for the People’s History Museum, I came across this, time and again: these re-imagined homelands.

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WATER LOSING MEMORY

When I first visited Pallikaranai, I could not understand why people said it had shrunk. To me, a city woman of concrete and tarmac, the marsh seemed huge and green. And then I saw the maps...

Pallikaranai 1988, 200, 2011, 2018

THE COMPOSITIONAL IMPORTANCE OF NEGATIVE SPACES

And these were the last photographic traces of Mr H. I recently visited the farm where the box of photographs was found. It was desolate, but even abandoned places tell a story.

TO THOSE STILL STANDING

Trapped time-

travellers

mourn

the unbuilt hearth,

the unfilled receptacles

of the heart,

the unlit fires.

Little

remains.

Crossing and recrossing,

the airborne

carrion

slashes through

habitations.

In the trainwreck

of my mind’s eye

unspools childhood war-games.

A sentinel

caws

to those still standing,

“Chicken,

run!”

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Chapter 6

Acknowledgements and Credits

‘Chicken Run' is an investigation into our histories that mixes fresh imagery and archival photos. Fiction can tell the truest stories of our troubled times, and the notes of hope we can excavate from them.

The People’s Museum of Chennai may be a fictional institution, but the project would not have been possible without help from a very real institution - the Indo-Korean Cultural and Information Centre, Chennai, India. Dr Rathi Jafer, Director InKo Centre, and her team, provided us with consistent and valuable support.

We gratefully acknowledge below the team that assisted us in this monumental task and especially the archival sources from where we received the permissions - Peabody Collection, Pepperdine Libraries (Pepperdine University), Imperial War Museum, UN Photo Library, NARA - as below in the Image Research Guide.

Thanks to Mr Liren and his daughter Isabel Cheong for the use of their pictures. Mr Liren was a Korean POW who came to India before heading for South America.

Thanks to Mrs Sathi Ramchander for the use of her late husband’s archival documents and photographs.

We would like to thank Rajiv Kalmadi for the generous use of his birding photo library.

For research assistance, we would like to thank Sashna Chandrashekhar and Srivarshini Ramamoorthy.

For additional research help and advice, we would like to thank Dr David Cheng Chang, Dr Errol Francis, Mike Palamara, Jairam Ramesh, Manu Pillai, Dr Yoondho Ra, The General K.S. Thimayya Memorial Trust, Tara Gandhi, Suchitra Unnithan, Sheila Brown, James Buckle.

For the videos and additional photography we would like to thank Hyunseok Jeong; Vel and Arjun from the InKo Centre for shoot coordination and logistics; Saila Farms for generously giving us permission to use their chicken farms; photo/video assistants Aruna and Vishnu; video editor Susheel Samuel Chandradhas.

VIDEO CREDITS

Editor: Susheel Samuel Chandradhas

Performer: Hyunseok Jeong

Narrator: Nayantara Nayar

Music and SFX sourced from the Free Music Archive and Freesound.org:

  • A story of war
  • Music: Cold War Echo by Kai Engel licensed under CC by 4.0 (Free Music Archive)
  • SFX: Civil War gunfire.wav by Electra by CCO 1.0 (Freesound.org)
  • Soft Wind by Florianreichelt by CCO 1.0 (Freesound.org)
  • Distant WW2 Gunfire Kent.wav by Cheeseheadburger by CC 3.0 (Freesound.org)
  • Building enclosures
  • Music: Clothe the Fields With Plenty by Axletree is licensed under CC by 4.0 International
  • SFX: https://freesound.org/people/martinimeniscus/sounds/199456/ by CC 0 (Freesound.org)
  • https://freesound.org/people/deleted_user_7146007/sounds/383726/ by CC 0 (Freesound.org)
  • onjohnroberts/sounds/402593/ by CC 0 (Freesound.org)
  • https://freesound.org/people/InspectorJ/sounds/456440/ by CC 3.0 (Freesound.org)
  • ReCrossing waters
  • Music: Verita by Marcos H. Bolanos is licensed under CCl 4.0 International
  • SFX:https://freesound.org/people/Littleboot/sounds/198091/ by CC 3.0 (Freesound.org)
  • https://freesound.org/people/martinimeniscus/sounds/199456/ by CC 0 (Freesound.org)
  • https://freesound.org/people/deleted_user_7146007/sounds/383726/ by CC 0 (Freesound.org)
  • https://freesound.org/people/simonjohnroberts/sounds/402593/ by CC 0 (Freesound.org)
  • https://freesound.org/people/InspectorJ/sounds/456440/ by CC 3.0 (Freesound.org)
Download Image Research Guide
About the artists

Parvathi Nayar

Chennai-based contemporary visual artist, poet and writer Parvathi Nayar is known for her multidisciplinary art, centred on complex intersections of photography, video, drawing, installation, and text. Parvathi’s art talks about different engagements with our environment, and the philosophies of inhabiting them. A consistent theme through her work is sustainability and water.

Platforms showing Parvathi’s films include ‘Waters of Change’ (International web-based, 2021) and ‘We Are Ocean’ programmes at multiple European venues (2019-2021). Solos include Atlas of Re-Imaginings (Chennai, 2018), Haunted by Waters (Dakshinachitra Museum, Chennai, 2017), Drawing is a Verb (Singapore, 2006). Installations include Invite/Refuse at the Indo-German DAMned Art project (2018), The Fluidity of Horizons, Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014/15), GenderFluid as part of The Hashtag#Collective (Kochi; Parvathi is a founder-member), In/Roads (CP Biennale, Jakarta, 2005).

Parvathi did her MA Fine Art from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, on a Chevening Scholarship from the British government.

Nayantara Nayar

Nayantara Nayar is a playwright, researcher, and storyteller from Chennai, India. Her research interests include urban spaces, memory, and ecological crises.

Her play ‘The Lottery’ was short-listed for the Hindu Play Writing Award, workshopped and read at the Fringe Edinburgh (Rage Theatre, Mumbai and The Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh), and is shortly expected to premiere in Chennai. Her last play ‘The Body’ was commissioned by Rage Theatre, Mumbai, and Enacte Theatre, California for their 2021 New Writing Festival. Her latest play ‘The Sometimes River’ is set to be published by Parag in collaboration with ThinkArts, Kolkata in early 2022.

She is a Chevening and CHASE funded scholar, currently completing her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich where she studies water crises through theatrical texts and performance.

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