Trees Are Us: Creating a positive community in urban lives

How planting trees can create a positive community experience in urban lives. Mumbai-based transdisciplinary media group Camp teamed up with architects Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte, and curator Gitanjali Dang, to initiate a project for children and adults.

In 2016, Mumbai-based transdisciplinary media group Camp teamed up with architects Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte, and curator Gitanjali Dang, to initiate R and R — a community space project for children and adults, hidden behind the long ghetto-like buildings of Lallubhai Compound in Mankhurd, Mumbai. R and R was a play on R&R, a policy acronym for Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation. The series of buildings stand with 3-4 m gap between them, not allowing in sunlight, and simultaneously trapping in humidity. However, as the project developed, through meetings, workshops and multiple negotiations with residents, R and R helped the residents of Lallubhai Compound plant a garden as a means to increase community engagement.

“For us the production of R and R, and its spilling into the desire for a garden, are all connected to how you nurture and produce a space,” says Camp’s Shaina Anand. The desire to create a garden came out of multiple workshops and conversations on what to do with the 12-ft wide, 100-m long unused space between Lallubhai Compound and the Sathe Nagar settlement behind it. Over the last two years, the dead space between the two has become greener. Crucially, it has generated a sense of ownership that has led to the caretaking of the garden and its surroundings by the residents.

Over the years, the idea of trees being the locus of community action — and, planting of trees as an expression of the desire for community — has seeped into numerous artwork and projects. Artists have explored shared histories, excavated memories or initiated spaces, through the idea of orchards, garden-making or, simply, through using parts of trees localised to particular areas as found objects.

Artist Shilpa Gupta often places natural forms against constructed or man-made demarcations. Her Tree Drawings (2013) speaks about shared vegetation across hostile borders. “Every summer, people over dinner tables across India and Pakistan spend hours talking and arguing over the taste of mango,” she says. The trees in her work are outlines, “drawn” with a white thread on white paper, keeping the length of the thread proportionate in scale to a country’s border fence. It extends to the olive tree, cherished by both Palestine and Israel, and the pecan, spotted across either sides of the US-Mexican border.

“I can map Pali Hill by the trees I see along the road,” claims Mumbai-based artist Ratna Gupta, when speaking about the trees she meets daily in her neighbourhood. Her sculptures often use found natural objects, in particular, broken bits of trees that line the roads that take her home. “The walk between my home and my studio, and collecting fallen wood from that space in between, has almost encompassed my body of work today,” she says. Ratna also considers trees as repositories of memories which “collect all the dirt, and grime and sweat, and the memory of the environment.” This, she says, “became a way of talking about my memories in relation to the environment and space I live in.”

This concept is not entirely new. Take for instance, the late German artist Joseph Beuys’ 1982 work 7000 Oaks (planting of young oak trees along with a basalt marker, across the city of Kassel, in Germany). Commissioned for Documenta 7, one of the world’s most important art shows, the work was designed as a social action/ intervention. Beuys had imagined three goals for the future of his project: that it will begin a global tree-planting movement that can create environmental and social change; that it will create awareness of how dependent humans are on the larger ecosystem of the planet; and, that it would start a process of activating society through “social sculpture”.

Iterations of the project can be seen in north-east Scotland and in New York City and Baltimore, Maryland, in the US, under the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership. In India, art historian Suresh Jayaram has compared environmentalist Saalumarada Thimmakka’s act of planting and nurturing 384 banyan trees on a 4-km highway in Karnataka, with 7000 Oaks.

Nature’s Basket

Gond artist Bhajju Shyam on the centrality of trees in tribal life.

Trees play an important role in Gond tradition. According to folklore, during the day trees nourish and protect, and at night they change their form and lead a different life. For us, it is imperative that we respect nature, and, trees, of course, form a crucial part of it.

We worship several trees and they are important in numerous rituals. Several of our folk songs and stories revolve around trees. Even our primary deity, Bada Dev, is believed to live in the Saja tree, so that is extremely sacred for us. We do not cut this tree or its branches, except for rituals. We play the bana (musical instrument) under the Saja tree to awaken Bada Dev for worshipping him. Once a year, when the tree gets new leaves, we serve food to the gods on its leaves, and later eat off its leaves ourselves. Likewise, we also keep the doomar plant in the mandap when we are getting married.

There is a belief that the Pandavas fasted to see its flower, and anyone who sees the doomar flower is considered to be fortunate.When I was 16, I left my house in Patangarh to make a living. I started working on a plantation project in Amarkantak, where I was paid Rs 2 for every sapling I planted. Now, whenever I travel there, I show my children how the plants have grown.

(As told to Vandana Kalra)

Phalguni Desai is an art writer and consultant based in Mumbai.

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