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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Art student Umesh Singh discusses the deepening farming crisis at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale

At a time when loan waivers to farmers have become a political issue, Umesh Singh, the postgraduate student of fine art at SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, has brought the voices of the farmers to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale though his exhibit that features in the Student’s Biennale segment of the 108-day event that began on December 12.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Updated: January 17, 2019 7:51:49 am
Umesh Singh’s art work

Artist Umesh Singh did not know Dashrath Bind — the debt-ridden farmer in Bind Toli in Bhojpur district who committed suicide in April last year after his mango crop was destroyed due to unseasonal hailstorm — but when he read about him in news reports, he could relate with his miseries. “It is getting increasingly difficult to survive through farming. Something needs to be done urgently,” says Singh, 26.

At a time when loan waivers to farmers have become a political issue, the postgraduate student of fine art at SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, has brought the voices of the farmers to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale though his exhibit that features in the Student’s Biennale segment of the 108-day event that began on December 12.

Umesh Singh

His installation Uncomfortable Tools is an assemblage of over 50 farming tools belonging to erstwhile farmers from across Bhojpur — which is among the 33 districts declared drought-hit by the Bihar government in October — who have abandoned farming for other means of livelihood. There are also tools belonging to Singh’s father who left cultivation on his farmland in Kurmuri village, 40-odd kilometers from Bind Toli, a decade ago, to take up the profession of a security guard in Hyderabad.

“He would put his heart into ensuring a good crop but financially, it was getting difficult to make ends meet. The farmers are being left with no choice but to quit in order to survive,” says Singh. To represent their predicament, he attaches the tools to parasitic wood that does not yield any purpose and spreads further infection. “Farming is in a similar situation. Who will produce food for people to consume?” questions Singh.

While his most lingering childhood memories are of him assisting his father in sowing a variety of crops, Singh also remembers living in constant fear that resulted from caste violence and clashes between numerous groups in the ’90s. He recalls that his uncle, too, was killed by goons in the village.

“My classmates in school would carry pistols, which could easily be purchased from vendors for as little as Rs 1,500,” says Singh. In the installation, he molds pistols from pulses and grains, to reflect on the added trauma that made life more difficult in the rural hinterlands. We also see the farmers standing on their farmlands — in photographs. Their faces, though, are covered with masks woven with ropes. “It acts like a muzzle. The farmers in Kurmuri have even stopped protesting. They have been raising issues for years now, it falls on deaf years,” says Singh. He hopes that through his work at the Biennale, people will sympathise with the plight of the farmers and support will come for them from different quarters.

Lessons in Art

Aiming to offer an international platform to art students from the subcontinent, this year the Students’ Biennale has over 100 participants from Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, apart from India. “We have also been able to give the students an increased production grant this year,” notes Bose Krishnamachari, president and founder of KMB. Themed around “Making as Thinking”, the display is spread across numerous venues in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. While students from Aligarh Muslim University are presenting a work titled Scream based on Kathua rape, those from Chennai have created a map using materials collected from various part of Chennai.

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