Living in the cities, news of disappearing farmlands and increasing numbers of farmers’ suicides is just another media story for most of us. But when a creative artist chooses to bring the harsh truth right at our doorstep, there is no way one can look the other way. New York based Kiran Chandra, diminutive in size but big on ideas, has chosen to portray farmer’s distress with a unique multi-media installation that converts the entire gallery space into a farmer’s domain. The gallery floor is covered with a deep red soil, walls are draped in a fabric that resembles paddy fields and in a far corner, a video plays out a man being covered from top to toe in a shroud like cloth.
“My work has primarily been exploring power and how it functions in society,” says Chandra, “I look at how globalisation and capitalism have given preference to profit over people, be it in the US or in India. For the show, I am creating a ‘place’ in the gallery which feels other yet familiar, idealized and separate: a diorama of the ruralscapes which inhabit the urban mind. The piece is an exploration of land use, how resources are used and points to the spate of farmer suicides in India.”
The walls of the gallery are wrapped in a cotton fabric with horizontal patterns in jagged green lines, creating the imagery of paddy growing in water logged fields. This pattern actually is, in fact, audio files of interviews that Chandra conducted with farmers in Chattisgarh, a state which has one of the highest figures of farmer’s suicides. The rise and fall of these voices tell of governmental practices in land redistribution, the land taken for flooding of rivers and the making of dams which never find their waters into the un-irrigated plots of these farmers. Interestingly, you cannot hear the interviews, for these voices have been rendered inaudible, but only feel their presence with each jagged oscillating line on the fabric. But the writing on the wall is clear. It is us who need to be willing to read and engage with it.
And Chandra is doing her bit. Born in Kolkata and living in Brooklyn, New York, she says that some of the changes in India in the last decade, especially the “mall-ification” of cities and the rapid pace of development have influenced her work. While land has been a subject of her work for the last five years – her previous show was about Singur – it was in the summer of 2011 when she began her research for the current show. “I stayed in Rajnandgaon in Chattisgarh for three days and interacted with many villagers. Their stories, some direct, some veiled, gave me a whole lot to think about.”
The figures Chandra shares with us are staggering. A quarter of a million farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 16 years – an average of one suicide every 30 minutes. “Farmers are burdened with debt, failed monsoons, failed crops and a failing government. As India booms and globalizes, what is to become of these small farmers? Why are these death tolls not affecting us as a nation? What is this disconnect?” she asks, while trying to coax a couple of carpenters to fix the lighting in a manner that highlights the two stencilled words on the soil. In this stencilled space, Chandra has planted grass and jowar seeds which will eventually grow into a pattern depicting the word – In Denial.
For the video, Chandra has used actors, both of whom play out the scene of a farmer’s body being covered with a cloth. “This is a choreographed piece in which a man sits on a stool in the verdant village setting. Another man begins to tie a turban on the seated man’s head. The turban however becomes a limitless piece of fabric which on being wrapped around the head of the seated man slowly continues down to his body, becoming eventually his shroud.”
These are the elements which make up the site specific installation. No one piece stands alone or occupies the status of an art object, instead there is a synchronised world of soil, cloth, beds and grass which allude to these concerns of the artist and make the environment thick with questions.
Pro.ject 2012.01 by Kiran Chandra will be on at Shrine Empire,
7, Friends Colony (West), New Delhi from January 18, 2012 till February 18.
Poonam Goel is a freelance journalist and has covered the arts for over 15 years. She contributes on visual arts for various newspapers, magazines and online media. More about her on Story Wallahs. Write to her @ email@example.com