The Cold Cold Ground

Review: The Black Truth / Ranjeet Singh / The Cold Cold Ground / Sushma Sabnis

‘The Black Truth’ by artist Ranjeet Singh at the Jehangir Art Gallery, opens up a Pandora’s box of uncomfortable truths caused by human greed. Trying to restore the dignity of those stripped of their very identity by the ones in power, he tries to present a picture of tomorrow of a populace whose future seems bleak as of now.. observes Sushma Sabnis.

In the heart of a desert resides an oasis and in the heart of an oasis resides a desert waiting to be revealed. Change is the essence of everything and in a world spinning with drastically changing climatic conditions and environments, both mental and physical, it is not surprising to find snow in the deserts today or grey infertile lands with no memory of the rivers they housed. As the noisy and careless humans speed past the choking remnants of the earth, blindly in the name of progress and globalisation, towns, villages, forests and lands scream in agony.  These screams of hopelessness, of lives laid to waste in the name of progress/ greed is what artist Ranjeet Singh articulates in his stark series, ‘The Black Truth’ on at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.

There is a peculiar silence in the second gallery, while the urban orchestra continues to crescendo outside at jet speeds. This silence whispers volumes about a world still quite alien to urban curiosity. Ranjeet reveals an unholy truth covered in black soot risen from the charred futures of an entire populace. At first the entire series brings the mind and the sensory apparatuses to a cold stand still. It takes a moment to distinguish the human figures from the blackened landscapes. These blended ‘human landscapes’ form the narratives of the mine workers of Dhanbad in Jharkhand, one of the places known to be under the Resource Curse where the artist frequents. These areas were once rich in forest lands and greenery adding more and more value to enrich the soil layers with minerals and natural resources, like coal and metals like copper, gold etc. The irony is that even after being mapped on the coal belt of the country and the world, these villagers exist in utter poverty and lack of basic amenities like clean water or breathable air. 

Ranjeet tries to portray the abysmal situations in these ravaged terrains. At the outset, one encounters large portraits in the display where one is arrested by the nameless faces of people who work in the coal mines. Contractors, middlemen, actual miners and even old people, women and children who are barely able to walk properly are seen doing rigorous labour in the chain of activities which could bring them a daily wage, barely enough to survive. While these portraits are of actual people, who the artist has captured at first in his camera and later painted them in large scale canvases almost monumentalising them, they seem detached and impenetrable. Some of these faces look out at the viewer with a ruthless dark gaze, while most others look away. One is left wondering why these people look away. The possibility of being photographed by a city resident trying to capture their plight may, to some, mean a violation of their privacy and dignity as well. But the artist presents these miners and their families in complete reverence in the works.  

One work which captures the viewer in their tracks is that of a little child holding a vessel of coal pieces over its head and looking completely lost. The artist has tried to capture the violation of laws against child labour and also brought to notice the absolute despair in the eyes of these young children. Another work which reflects this sentiment is the one with a young girl on a hillock, walking away with an empty basket to fetch coal. There is no inkling as to where she goes, or any hint of a place beyond the hillock. This lack of detail in the work depicts the directionless and bleak future of the generations to come, where the children are forced to do menial jobs to survive while their parents are kept busy in the mines, hundreds of feet below with no accident or damage cover of their lives. In another work, a woman takes an iron rod and breaks the hillocks of coal into smaller pieces to be used/ sold to the locals/companies which buy the fossil fuel. Yet another way to survive, scavenge for coal bits from abandoned or dry mines.

After the initial shock of the black truth visuals, one wonders as to the  depictions the artist has chosen to portray and why. One common feature in most of the paintings on display is that in most of them the protagonist’s face is either not shown or it is shrouded by soot or blends undefinably with the surroundings or only half the face is shown. One wonders why an artist who is hoping to flag out the issues of these miners and their families, chose to hide the identity of these people in such a way. The answer probably lies in the fact that it is not just that these people live in misery, but have been eternally silenced. This exploitation has been a narrative for decades now and each political or economical upheaval has only made it worse. As the natural resources of the earth are being exploited, manipulated and owned, the avarice driven mining companies have shown no concern or even remorse for the environment whatsoever. Neither has the government which is responsible for these people and these lands and its resources. Like warring mafia/gang lords, fighting over control of the prime properties of a place, economical and political exploitations/ manipulations have only hurried its total annihilation. As a result, the artist tells us over 600 villages have been wiped out and devastated to ash. Their lands have been grabbed, mined and then left to rot. It is pertinent to know that an empty mine leaves large craters in the land, as the greenery is flattened out to make these tunnels into the earth thus increasing the particulate matter in the air causing respiratory tract illnesses over generations. These areas suffer from acid rains, as the monsoons bring down the harmful airborne particulate matter, further rendering the lands infertile.

In these situations survival is an daily, even an hourly struggle. Ranjeet tries to address the absolute annihilation of the identities of these people and these lands by the forces of greed in the name of progress. In one of the works, the worker holds a pickaxe and the entire dark composition rests on the implement. Pushed into the background is the human being himself, a living being forced into the backdrop of a dying ecosystem. In another work, an old man hauls a large coal block on his head and it is barely distinguishable from his own head, while he covers his face with his palm. A miner who probably climbs down hundreds of feet into the earth’s belly is shown looking at the viewer but his face and eyes are so shaded that they are barely visible. Another miner’s eyes dripping hopelessness stands in the foreground looking at the viewer while the mills spew dark venom into the air in the background. 

Ranjeet has tried to bring out the plight and misery of these people’s lives in this series. He is also displayed his earlier works, drawings on paper which depict social issues like child labour and environmental exploitation in urban scenarios. In some of his works, one encounters a silent rage and at times an absolute defeat against the system and the governance. When asked if he believes his works could help create any impact on the urban viewers, he replies in the negative. He believes governments have to witness these precarious situations and dehumanising situations of the people living there to evoke a drastic change. Ironically in a country which is famous for its genius brains and technological advancements, with numerous IITs and other research facilities available, no one has yet found an alternative solution to dependency on fossil fuels. Choosing to depend lesser on fossil fuels would be the only solution for humankind to survive and that in itself is a challenge. Rather than using their intellect for creating flashier gadgets and gizmos to create a brain-dead population, governments need to prioritise to cut the need for dependency on natural resources and fossil fuels the world over. Having said that, artist Ranjeet Singh believes even if one person becomes aware about these neglected and exploited terrains and the people, it could be a first tiny step in the right direction and that is what he aims to do with his works.

A must see show.

The Black Truth is on view till 9th April at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.

One thought on “The Cold Cold Ground

  1. Beautiful portraits, they appear to be life like. It is a harsh reality of this world that we in the name of development are killing our natural surroundings that is in return killing us back.
    Great art work!


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