A lapse in clearing his final year engineering exam led writer, environmentalist and artist Pankaj Sekhsaria to Port Blair, where a friend of his was posted. The first two months of his visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 1995 were only the beginning of a long association with the archipelago and the environmental and livelihood issues plaguing it. Since, Sekhsaria has extensively photographed and written about the Islands along with legally contesting for its indigenous communities. The two decades of his immutable investment in the region is reflected in the exhibition, “Island Worlds… of land and sea”, at the India International Centre, which also has panels of excerpts from his debut novel, The Last Wave. “In my work, the word and the image were used for a particular thing, in a particular way. In the last couple of years, I felt the need to explore the more creative dimension of these elements. So, in some sense, this exhibition is a recalibration of 15-20 years of research, writing and photo-making,” says Sekhsaria.
With an acute understanding of life on the Islands, Sekhsaria, through his photographs, has brought to the fore the uniqueness of its ecology — tracks of a leatherback turtle, that the locals call “tractor kachhua”; sea anemone, a fiddle crab making its way through a mangrove, and giant rainforest trees. These form the nucleus of the exhibition.
All the works on display have been reproduced on silk fabric to imbue the photographs with a certain “luminosity” and “depth”, thereby changing the experience of the visual. “We are used to seeing photographs on paper or on the screen. People, I noticed, wanted to touch photographs. To me that was disturbing. One way to solve the ambiguity was to take the physicality out of the equation. So, it looks like a photo but there is a picture here that also looks like a painting. When you go closer, you realise that it is fabric. It changes the physical medium of the photograph,” says Sekhsaria.
In the exhibition, that has travelled to Pune, Goa and Chennai, Sekhsaria’s lens also shifts to workers in a bamboo factory, boatmen and patterns left on the sand by an ebbing sea at Tarmugli Island — all of which voice his political stance. “How do we look at these islands? Should they have an identity of their own or should they only be viewed as adjuncts of the Indian state? Further, the environmental issues of the region are missing from the discourse and the planning around the region. We keep talking about changing the names of the islands. Why are we forgetting that these islands had tribal names? Why can’t they be renamed to the original? These are larger questions that we need to engage with,” says Sekhsaria.
The exhibition is on at The Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Complex, IIC, Max Mueller Marg, till August 2