That a quarter of the world’s major cities face an acute water shortage in the imminent future is now an unenviable reality. That Indian cities might be among them has also been fairly well-established. Yet, before rampant industrialisation began threatening our ecosystems, India’s relationship with nature — with its forests, rivers and fauna — had been one of respect, revered in its art and literature, intrinsic to its festival cycle.
Gond artist Subhash Vyam grew up in the village of Sonpuri near Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh before he moved to the city to find work. In his book Water, written with Gita Wolf, he looks back at the slow change in his community’s relationship with key natural resources, in particular, water. It had never been plentiful in his village, but there had been a lake nearby, fed by rain and tributaries of a larger river that flowed in the hills. The lake was all they had to meet their needs and when it dried up in summer, it would mean a long trek for the women of the village to fetch water. This seasonal shortage taught them to treat the resource with the respect it demanded.
Development, however, would soon come to Vyam’s village — first, in the form of wells, and then, slowly, through hand pumps and other amenities. In the meantime, Vyam would move to the city to work, living in a small apartment and marvelling at the luxury of having running water at his disposal and at the ability of the rich to buy resources if they had to. But, soon, a worried note from his mother would take him back to the village: a dam was to be built over the river in the hills, how would it impact their lifeline, the lake?
No one really knew, but Vyam remembered an ominous folk tale about broken promises and their bitter consequences. Had human greed exacted more than its due, with no reflection on consequences? Would nature respond in fury? Vyam, who had earlier created Bhimayana, the illustrated biography of Dr Balasaheb Ambedkar, along with his wife Durga Bai, offers a parallel visual narrative of life in the village. Set against earthy monochromes, each illustration is replete with his trademark animal imagery and intricate line drawings. If urban greed renders those at an economic and social disadvantage vulnerable first, would it take long before its turns its wrath on civilisation as a whole, he wonders? As recent environmental crises point out, perhaps, not.