Arunkumar HG, 49
Watching the farmers walk down the streets of Mumbai on his television screen, Gurgaon-based artist Arunkumar HG wanted to be one of them. “I felt I should have been there. It was symbolic of so much energy, unison. It was a peaceful march. The farmers have been discussing these concerns over many years but this caught everyone’s attention. Mahatma Gandhi, too, used the march as a powerful and effective means to shake up the system,” says Arunkumar.
The artist has often flummoxed visitors to the white cube with agrarian questions, surrounding them with his works that comprise seeds, leaves, dirt and cow dung. He appears to allude to the need for everyone, and not just farmers, to recognise the importance of diverse plant and animal life. “I don’t see environmental degradation, ecological imbalance and the concerns in the agricultural realm as separate,” says Arunkumar.
At his ongoing exhibition at Aicon gallery in New York titled “In-Site”, he explores the relationship between consumerist culture and the systematic degradation of natural resources. In the series, “Vulnerable Guardians”, he positions the farmers as guardians of ecology who have themselves become vulnerable in the present times. Several of his protagonists are family members based in Karnataka’s Shivamogga district, where Arunkumar grew up. He still visits his parents there every couple of months. “When I was a child we had a lot of forest land around us, now that is gone. My mother never had to purchase vegetables because so much of it was available. The forest gave us so much food. I want people to identify with the ecological system,” says Arunkumar, adding that he is concerned about the impact of genetic engineering and agricultural monopolies on seed and plant types. In the 2012 exhibition, “Seeds of Reckoning”, at Mumbai Art Room he had used over 30 varieties of leaves and seeds to emphasise the value of biodiversity. He also runs a centre in his hometown to discourage unsustainable agriculture, engage people through the arts and document local practices. “The farmers are not getting their due. I wanted to understand the problems and work towards solutions,” says Arunkumar.
Prabhakar Pachpute, 31
Artist Prabhakar Pachpute recalls growing up around darkness. The world around him always seemed dismal, plagued with constant challenges. Even before he was born in 1986, the ancestral farming land that his family owned in Sasti village in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra was acquired by the government for mining coal. “Since then there has been no farming land in our family. Only one member from the household would get a job in mining as compensation and the rest would be dependent on him or her,” says the Pune-based artist.
He is familiar with the demands put out by the farmers of Maharashtra during the long march to Mumbai. “It’s a shame that in our country farmers still have to protest like this for their basic demands. But I think it was impressive that they raised their questions and demands collectively. It was overwhelming,” says Pachpute, who was following their progress through social media.
While most of his family is still employed in the mines, the postgraduate from MS University, Baroda, has reflected on their struggles through art. His works often deal with the traumatic lives of the miners, the farmers’ changing relationships with the landscape and the permanent soil depletion caused by mineral extraction in regions such as Chandrapur. In a 2017 solo, “Shadows on Arrival”, at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata, he pointed out how “subsidies, advice and information given to farmers often do not work”. In 2016, at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, he had painted farmers waiting for succour in drought-ridden Maharashtra. Referencing Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio’s painting Doubting Thomas, where Thomas touches Jesus’s wounds to check if he was dead or alive, Pachpute had government officials checking the cracks on the ground to examine if the problems of the cotton farmers were real or not. “The social environment and the situations are so intense that one cannot stay uninfluenced,” says Pachpute.
Shweta Bhattad, 32
“A farmer is somebody who grows food and feeds others, then how can he not have enough food at his home?” asks Shweta Bhattad. This is a question she often posed as a child, when she saw farmers in distress in her grandfather’s village near Nagpur. Over the years, she has better understood the various concerns of the farming communities in India. The postgraduate from MS University, Baroda, has used art as a means to advocate sustainable farming and indigenous seeds. “I saw the biodiversity of the village destroyed because the farmers were encouraged to grow only Bt cotton. This led to a fall in the water table and frustration among the youth. The industries being set up in the SEZs have basic infrastructure, including water, but the farmers are suffering,” says Bhattad.
She did not know about the long march that the farmers undertook to Mumbai till the government responded, but says she is in solidarity with them. “Several farmers are leaving the occupation every day in India. Several others are committing suicide. If the situation continues, there would be no farmers in this agricultural country,” says the artist. In 2012, with her performance titled Three Course Meal and a Dessert of Vomit in Delhi, she highlighted the ironic coexistence of starvation and extravagant wastage of food in India.
In 2013, Bhattad initiated the Gram Art Project, which invites artists and professionals to work for improvement in rural life. She collaborates with indigenous cotton growers and spinners in Wardha and women in the region to produce rakhis. She also made a direct appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi through his portrait, spread over 8,000 square feet land that was sown in Paradsinga in 2016. The shading was done with coloured leafy vegetables. No genetically modified crops were used and the accompanying slogan “Dear Prime Minister Please Grow in India”, echoed the “Make in India” slogan.