FEATURE/ Review: A Bowl full of Empty / Sushma Sabnis
While some caress a distending gut over lack of exercise because of lockdown, others flatline on pavements for a piece of bread or few drops of milk; some are impossibly twisted in a yoga pose for weight loss while others walk barefoot carrying an entire life on their shoulders braving a harsh sun. While the virus kills only those infected, starvation remains indiscriminate… observes Sushma Sabnis
Month three of the lockdown trimester begins and as we adjust to our forced confinement holding each others’ socially distanced gazes and sanitised hands, standing on halos circling our feet, we tread gingerly on the thin layer of reliable information and facts that have been gathered about the brutal coronavirus. As the death toll rises daily around the world, a cure/a vaccine is yet to charm these unpredictable times back into the absolutely reckless lives we were so habituated to leading. In the meantime, the earth is greener and bluer than before, the air seems invisible as it should be, and the breath does not play a bronchial orchestra if air happens to invade the lungs. But nature seems to be taking stock of all our past misdemeanours by sending us an occasional uprooting cyclone, a few locust clouds for weekday fun, a weekend forest fire and a few painful raps on our knuckles in the past months. Some, however, don’t appear to be able to catch a break.
Numerous stories of migrating labourers and their families have shamed our consciences and the media, social or otherwise is wrought with friction on how the government has been limp willed in helping those unfortunate. Meanwhile some samaritans have made efforts to help and temporarily rehabilitate or bring these ousted families back to their home towns and villages, but these efforts can only do so much as they run out of economic steam at some point. We are flooded with images of families lying in groups on roads and highways, under flyovers, like grass, mosses, shrubberies and bushes which grow in a forest carpeting the floor while the taller trees dominate the air space and sunlight. Small plants manage to survive with little sunlight, while most perish into the forest floor endowing it with their petrichor. Most migrant families act as such ‘underwood’ in urban jungles and most of them perish having given their best living their lives yearning to belong to that city.
These are the deep narratives of artist Navanshu Kumar from Khairagarh, who creates a video work titled ‘The Underwood’ as a tribute to numerous marginalised families who live and die nourishing urban jungles, but never become a part of it. When it is time for order, the shrubs and weeds are uprooted and used as fodder, just as the migrant families have been uprooted as part of a quarantine/lockdown procedure. Navanshu’s earlier works have been about Identity and in lockdown times, he revisits this subject taking a range of perspectives which focus on the marginalised people all over the world and migrant labourers specifically. In the public art he makes from found objects, he places a scarecrow, the cause of fear and anxiety (pandemic) according to him, as a looming figure surrounded by numerous windows which look at the it in confusion or as information boards which have guidelines about the sanitisation procedures to combat the spread of the virus. In his interview he talks about how people are in a state of limbo leaving them clueless; while the information is derived through numerous social media ‘windows’; not all of them reliable, some even misleading only to those with access to internet. He also addresses the political/social outfall of the lockdown, the freedom of speech/thought, the agencies who control what is best for the majority, where one is only shown what needs to be ‘seen’ while a huge demographic languishes in the dark. There are frames with discarded clinical masks lying on the floor hinting at a broken post-pandemic world. The environmental, biological, economical and psychological issues which people would face seems to lead towards a critical mass waiting to explode. The marginalised entities regard the scarecrow/pandemic with anxiety, blaming it for their loss of value in a social structure ridden with hierarchical prejudices and economical/political agendas. Navanshu’s work simultaneously unravels the quagmire of past, present and a dystopian future.
The reports of starvation and death related incidents endured by the migrant labourers in our country have been the subject of much research and addressal in Delhi based artist Ranjeet Singh’s recent works. The incident of the goods train running over labourers sleeping on the tracks after working on them, has brought into focus the looming fear of starvation faced by the working classes and the absolute apathy of a socio-political system which deems them as disposable entities. The lockdowns ordered by the health ministries to curb the spread of the virus have been grossly overlooked in the face of clueless crowds ousted from their livelihoods stranded, by lack of foresight by governing authorities. The families have walked back thousands of kilometres with bare minimum resources to their villages which are already enduring droughts.
Ranjeet’s work is innovative in the use of medium, as in he uses the ‘Roti’ the basic food, one of the basic need of human beings, to articulate his thoughts. In one work he burns out the rough map of the country and then stitches it back using different coloured threads; hinting at the diverse socio-cultural aspects which hold our country together. In another work titled ‘New India’ a desolate mother holds her child as she walks another 500kms on a road littered with human bones towards her destination. Ranjeet’s innovative use of medium and the polemic he brands them with could be seen as a novel attempt by an artist with limited art supplies during the lockdown, urging him to think differently and bravely articulate his times. His works bring out the dark reality that the coronavirus could kill only those infected, but starvation kills all indiscriminately.
The world health organisations have been predicting a shortage of food supplies and vital resources in the near future as a result of the world wide lockdown. In our country, the farmers and agrarian communities have already been under tremendous pressure and one is reminded of the farmer suicides in Maharashtra and other parts of the country. Sustainability of agricultural practices has been one of the issues Mumbai based artist Kuldeep Karegaonkar also from the Po10tial group, portrays in his paintings and installation works. Hailing from a farming community in Parbhani, a drought prone district among 26 others, his focus has been towards revisiting farming practices of communities of the yesteryears. During the lockdown Kuldeep chooses to articulate and merge the issues of the farmers and the migrant labourers who also include farm help too, to create a mural on a wall at his home. The sensitive work depicts a farmer desperately holding on to the withering stem of a flowering jowar (sorghum) crop while in the background the fields and farms are shown at various levels of ripening. This struggle by the farmer to save the crop, protecting it from pests, harsh weather, lack of resources and government apathy is to feed the nation, not a self serving effort.
On the horizon the ousted migrant families are shown walking back from cities; according to Kuldeep this is a scene of reverse migration, where these people abandoned their own fields for failure to eke out a decent livelihood from it years ago, to migrate to cities and work as labourers, domestic help, security personnel or other menial jobs. The return of these migrants to their rural areas is not deciphered by the artist as just a loss of their livelihood, but also as an assault on their self respect and social standing. The artist believes that it would require an intensive soul searching by all levels of the government to be able to rectify the deep chasm that the agricultural industry is wedged in at the moment.
Young artist Kumar Misal from Mumbai also a part of the Po10tial group, hails from an agricultural background. Kumar has been known for his intense engagement with creating recycled paper from various substances, especially cloth or found materials. In a post pandemic scenario, his work takes on a more serious note as environmental issues become the first problem to be addressed and resolved. In his email interview, he refers to nature as the most resilient of all and believes in the return of the balance which has been lost because of human intervention and exploitation. The changing colours of the soil in his farm remind him of the phenomenal possibilities and endurance ability of nature which he hopes to mirror on his recycled papers. Some of his works can be seen as almost naive depictions of his village life where the farms and lives of the people intertwine in numerous ways. The works adorn a simplistic aura while giving out a strong message about the environment. The papers that Kumar creates have a rustic, unfinished look stripping the urban need for uniformity and ‘presentation’. In one work titled, ‘Transition’ the conflict between the rural and the urban are addressed depicting a man looking and torn between two sides of possibilities. This work stands out as a perfect portrayal of today’s migrant labourer, confused and victimised by socio-political and economical hierarchies as a whole.
There are numerous narratives associated with the lockdown and each week presents a new organ failure in the ever burgeoning body of a faulty, disintegrating system. As the stomach of the system is promised a bowl full of empty in the near future, the heart struggles and clutches at straws while the brain holds itself hostage for answers in the solitary confines of the mind. Thankfully some artists open a few windows to light and some even knock down a few doors for hope and reason to shine through in these dark times.
Images courtesy : The artists