In a photograph, the soft-pink sun gleams on the horizon at the Thanthirayan Kuppam coast, 10 km from Pondicherry. Rows of placards are stuck into the sand. They are emblazoned with words that the fishermen came up with when asked what they associate with the sea: “trawlers,” “engine,” “money,” “cyclone” and “crab”. “What comes into focus is the network of political, social, and economic entanglements and how nature is very much a lived relationship,” says artist-activist Ravi Agarwal about the image, titled Rhizome.
With the title of his latest solo ‘Else, all will be still,’ at Gallery Espace in Delhi, Agarwal is raising a red alert. The photograph on the Thanthirayan Kuppam coast near the Bay of Bengal is an outcome of his interactions with local fishermen. His diary ‘Ambient Seas’, kept in a corner of the gallery, records conversations that began in the winter of 2013, when Agarwal first explored the sea in a small catamaran with a fisherman. “I felt very vulnerable. My ‘ground’ shifted. I was no longer in control — the sea was. The river is a very different body of water. One can see across it, there is the other side, while the sea seems endless,” says the Delhi-based artist-activist. He set out to explore its past and present, finding references in ancient Tamil Sangam poetry, and in the lives of fishermen doing odd jobs for survival.
His aide was Selvam, a traditional fisherman who helped him navigate new waters and apprised him of its moods. Agarwal films him sewing fishing nets and building a catamaran from logs, but notes that Selvam has taught neither skill to his sons, nor has he taught them to swim — lest they decide to pursue his profession. “He wants to keep his children away from the constant struggle for survival the profession poses,” says the 57-year-old.
Agarwal, a communications engineer with a management degree, shares an intimate bond with ecology. It was the desire to do “value-based” work that led him to quit his consulting job in 1993 and establish an environmental NGO Toxics Link.
Initially, photography was a means to document the rapid urban development and migration of the 1990s. In the book Down and Out: Labouring under Global Capitalism, co-authored with Dutch sociologist Jan Breman, he documented the lives of migrants in villages of south Gujarat, bringing out lives that revolved around “work”. The project was well-received, but in the art world he was still an outsider, an activist, who, perhaps, did not care much about breaking in. Acceptance and interest deepended with an invitation to the 2002 Documenta, curated by Okwui Enwezor. His selection had surprised most, but Agarwal returned home with rave reviews of his photographs that had the migrants as protagonists, band boys in Delhi and labourers in Gujarat among others.
Water has been an integral part of his oeuvre. He has been fascinated by it for as long as he can remember; even before his first exhibition in 2004, “Alien Waters”, with the river as a metaphor. In it, he documented thousands left homeless due to rapid urban development around the Yamuna, how the city was turning its back on the river. “There was a time when the river was its ecology,” says Agarwal.
In 2007, he returned to the riverbed covered in a shroud, for a performance that represented the death of the river and the expulsion of thousands of shantytown-dwellers from the banks in a bid to “clean up” and beautify the waterway ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Since then, Yamuna has been his constant muse. If, in the series ‘Have you seen the flowers on the river?’ (2007), he photographed the centuries-old flower fields on the Yamuna that are now dwindling due to the escalating land prices, in ‘After the Floods’ (2011) he photographed the remnants of silt left behind by the receding monsoon flood waters.
The observations were included in the Yamuna Manifesto (2013), a bilingual book (Hindi and English) edited by Agarwal and German artist-curator Till Krause. In it, the duo narrated the story of the Yamuna, from its origin to the struggles it faces due to state apathy and rapid development. The year before, they had led people to a park on the banks of the Yamuna, when they curated “Yamuna-Elbe.Public.Art.Outreach”. Works of artists such as Asim Waqif, Atul Bhalla and Sheba Chhachhi from India and Nana Petzet and Jochen Lempert from Germany comprised the project. “The idea was to allow engagement with the river,” says Agarwal.
Last month, he was among those protesting against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s World Culture Festival being held on the banks of the Yamuna. “I look at it as a huge assault. No one imagined that so much land would be given away in one go. When they say they haven’t cut any trees, it shows their limited understanding of what constitutes nature and its destruction. They have flattened the land and by doing that, they have destroyed it. This is a very delicate ecosphere and any intervention is harmful,” says Agarwal, adding that the ease with which permissions were granted also sets a wrong precedent.
A work from the current exhibition, ‘Catamaran’, perhaps, reflects his state of mind best. Embossed upon planks of wood that make up the fisherman’s simple catamaran are words from Neithal poetry, “Evening has come. Soon, darkness too will close in,” it reads. There is Agarwal, too, rowing in the deep seas, in the archival photo print 4am. He is the master of the catamaran but the rushing waves decide the path.