Thank you Khoj International Artists Association, for the invitation to the Negotiating Food program. I am excited to be part of a larger conversation with fellow artists and activists, where we are looking at ways to address the complex issues of Food production and the disparity in its consumption in India.
Coming from a rural background, I have always been sensitive to agricultural issues, especially food. After starting my art practice in 2010, this sensitivity gradually led me to start an investigation of agrarian crisis taking place in rural India. In this context I started making regular trips to my village and understand what was going on the ground. I was astounded to see a completely different picture, of the village from what I had left in 1997.
It was ironic, as the village boasted of development, good roads with motorbikes, tractors and cars. Communication in every house-hold with mobile phones, entertainment in every hut with TVs and dish antennas, a wide selection of channels, bringing in full force of advertising. Surely a good sign of luxury, and buying power, signs of upliftment of society, but the question was where the money coming from?
This is where we started our investigation on Food. The starting complexity we tried to address was: Despite being the second largest producer of food in the world, India suffers from the highest rates of malnutrition, especially in the farming class. Our project was titled Aulinjaa: An abstract reality which great support from Khoj’s Negotiating routes program. The initial proposal was to investigate the Organic movement in India and its implementation on rural ground. While in process, we encountered the complexity of food production and its consumption. Far from being organic, what we encountered was an industrial behemoth, involving machinery, intensive land and water use, fertilizers and pesticides being used without any understanding of their harmful effects. Monoculture of cash crops the mainstay for any landholder.
We encountered how fast industrial methods have taken over old methods of subsistence culture. How the need to grow more has encroached on natural forests, marshes, grasslands and even deserts. How industry has made farm their battleground of marketing. How pesticides and modified seeds have become ubiquitous. How financing schemes of tractors, farming equipment have been enslaving the farmer, an individual who is unaware of Global capitalism unleashed on him.
But at the same time, we encountered hope, through small farms still practicing subsistence agriculture. These are living archives of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage. Archives of seeds, tools, methods, ways of subsistence agriculture, the ways of understanding the fine symbiotic relationship one needs to have with nature in order to enjoy its bounties. It was fruitifying to know, we in India still have small islands of traditional knowledge, which if preserved can pave way for a better future. Thus it came to turn our project into an investigation “When Aulinjaa is not for today, but tomorrow”
As artists one of the first steps was to start documentation of what we were witnessing and what could be saved for future generations. Instead of being interventionist, our approach took turn towards developing an understanding of the socio-political situation confronting agrarian societies in rural India. We interviewed farmers, craftsmen, tribals who lived off from the forest produce, illegal stone miners, government clerks, school teachers, woman folks and even children. It took us many months of on-grounds engagement to understand their take on the current situation. The result was a cross-section of a society in uprooting, a society being forcefully transformed. A mass being forced to move out from their lands, their farms, their livelihood and forced to move to Urban centers to be enslaved for generations in economic slavery. Forced to look down upon what they had been practicing for generations, given the term ganwar (illiterate) and now have to learn new means, which is their only way of survival.
And from the people who were still trying to live on-ground, in the villages, we heard many sad tales; of farmers trying to hold on to their land and water rights and resisting the industrial ways. It was the courage of these people which made us think about the future and one of our first intervention was to paint the village school. Not to make any protest, because school is not a site to do it, our idea was just to give a sparkle, a possibility of hope for the future generation. As it was hard to see small children sitting in these dark rooms with bare walls and even harder to expect them to imagine a better future from the bleak ceiling. School painting was an exciting project for everyone. While kids really enjoyed the process and learned how to paint, the elders started feeling the energy, the colors made them start thinking of something possible, something which can just change the way we see and perceive things. So just the act of adding color to blank walls changes perception of how the space can act.
The other initiative was to rebuild a site of community. It was a place of common worship, not religious, as it was dedicated to local spirits, bringing forth a primitive tradition to respect natural forces. The idea was to make the place a place of congregation and idea dissemination and while building, to revive the old construction methods. The area is rich with usage of local materials, like stone and bricks. Ironically it was difficult to find anyone who could handle the refinement of building with stone. This also again brought out the stark fact that industrial ways of construction, i.e. cement and steel columns, replacing the traditional materials. Local tradition being subdued by global corporatization.
Finally after work of many months, it was time to bring in experts from the field of organic & sustainable farming to organize a seminar, a knowledge-sharing program, initiate a seed bank and distribute trees to children, so that each can take it as a responsibility, as a promise to take care of the environment and take part in the future direction the village would take. For this we organized an open day event, involving film screenings, a photographic exhibition of indigenous seeds. A team of agriculture experts, from government agencies were invited to share idea on organic farming, how to modify traditional methods, so that they are more functional, still retaining their cultural values. This was a huge success and more then a thousand people attended the evening. The site became a point of positive energy, a site of forward looking, a site of pride. The documentation of the project can be viewed at: www.aulinjaamp.blogspot.com.
To understand better what is happening in our cities, one needs to understand what is happening to other cities around the world, especially the west, since we at large are following that model of growth and industrialization. In this context it was very fruitful, that I was invited by Rizhome Alliance (http://rootingchicago.org), a Chicago based group of artists and food activists, who are keen to enlarge their understanding of food & health crisis in Post-Industrial Urban settings. Here they have been working on various models of agriculture within the city and create a self-reliant system which is locally responsible. It is direct response and a form of protest against the giant industrial agricultural system, which operates out of the city. This monopolized system only operates through marketing chains and has enslaved the consumers, by providing no other possibilities. It has enslaved both the producers and the consumers; in this context the Urban Farming movements are very important in understanding and creating viable alternatives.
This encounter in Chicago and watching the practices of many artists and activists involved in this movement, gave the impetus that we in India, do need to address the issue at the earliest. Though I feel our complexities are different, we according to Global view are still developing, we are still in a flux, we are not developed (though personally I hate this comparative scaling), neither are we post-industrial as most of the west is. We are in between and in a more complex scenario, yet I feel it is more interesting scenario to redefine, how our cities can adopt to this rapid urbanization, how we can avoid making the same mistakes and most primarily how we can take care of its growing migrant populations (who are primarily farmers) and provide food security to one and all.
Akshay Raj Singh Rathore