Last November, when thousands of farmers from across India marched towards the Parliament in Delhi, among the several cameras documenting their journey was that of artist duo Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra. “We wanted to understand the issues and lend our support,” says Tagra. The Gurugram-based artists spent two days with the farmers at Ramlila Maidan. The numerous hours of footage has resulted in the 23-minute documentary Kisan Mukti March that is part of their exhibition, “Bread Circuses and I”, at Nature Morte in Delhi. The issues visitors hear about at the exhibition — from failed promises of loan waiver to higher cost of commodities due to GST — might now seem familiar but are still pertinent. “The documentation delves into the trials and tribulations of farmers. We did not want to put the camera on the faces of people. It did not feel right to intrude on their pain and be that intimidating,” says Tagra.
For several years, now the duo has been researching on the ground, interacting with the Baru Sahib Academy that interviewed families of farmers who committed suicide in Punjab. They also visited villages in Haryana and Sangrur district in Punjab that has recorded suicide cases among cotton growers. “One thing led to the other. At first, we were just trying to understand the issues,” says Tagra. Their findings have translated into works of art that discuss varied but interconnected issues — from fragmentation of land holdings to lower crop yields, inherited indebtedness and rising inflation. On the roof of the gallery, the two artists have painted derivatives based on the agrarian crisis — from the ‘discrimination basis’ to ‘fragmentation of land holding’. At the entrance is the video Surjeet Singh, named after its protagonist, who, over a span of 10 years, met around 2,500 families of deceased farmers on the day of their deaths to fill out the application for their demise. Scrolling down are details on individual farmer deaths — from the name to date of demise, and the way he died. “We got this data from NGOs,” says Tagra. In the adjoining room is the installation Aftermath. Pages from the Swaminathan Commission Report, which assessed the problems faced by farmers in India, are neatly placed on the floor, with a pesticide spray machine spraying intermittently on them. “We have tried to create an open field and the reports have been placed as harvested crops. The pesticide sprays after every 30 minutes, which is an average time of one farmer suicide in India,” says Tagra.
The two first met in the mid ‘90s at the Government College of Art, Chandigarh, where Thukral was Tagra’s senior. They worked as art directors in an advertising firm before they began working together some years later, getting their first break in 2005 with a solo at Nature Morte. The moniker Thukral and Tagra was introduced in the white cube, and in the coming years a series of artworks were created under their label Bosedk. The satirical and kitsch works often commented on a range of contemporary concerns, from shifting family values to migrant dreams among the youth of Punjab and commercialisation in art. “It is our constant endeavour to manifest stories of our times,” says Tagra.
The current set of work is no different. It is also influenced by their own personal histories, memories and background — belonging to middle-class families. Tagra’s father is a businessman in Ludhiana and Thukral’s is an artist and wrestler who owns an akhada in Jalandhar. “In the past, we have been thinking of researching on displacement and related concerns. We realised how some of these people come from farming backgrounds, and find that there is no scope anymore and that’s how the displacement happens. Our access points to the subject matter is through our family histories and that is probably why I understand food, weather, and language,” says Tagra.
In the exhibited series Farmer is a Wrestler, the metaphor of agriculture as a wrestling bout depicts how like a wrestler’s physical and mental struggle, farmers are also fighting an agrarian crisis. While the drawings in the series make a direct comparison, during the showing of the exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in London in the summer in 2019, central to the exhibition, “Bread, Circuses & TBD” was a game based on kushti. A wrestling mat on the floor was marked with different symbols and numbers, and during the game, viewers learnt more about the challenges faced by the farmers. Occupying the surrounding walls were pieces from a circular canvas with layered narratives. While the game could not be set up at the exhibition in Delhi due to paucity of space, in another installation in cast iron, titled A Dozen – Distress Symbols, placed on a table are distress mathematical symbols, posing before the viewers the complicated crisis that seems impossible to resolve.
The exhibition is at Nature Morte, A-1, Block A, Neeti Bagh, Delhi, till October 19