Most our festivals revolve around change of season, and this is primarily owing to our agrarian roots. While we may have shifted to industrialization for economic development, the repercussions of this transition are many: extensive land acquisition and human migration, to name a few. This, in turn, has far-reaching impact on the very social structure of the displaced communities.
Visual artist Sangita Maity has been researching this gradual shift in cultures in villages located at the border shared between West Bengal and Jharkhand for 21 years now. Vibrant and rich harvesting rituals are slowly vanishing, or being followed for the sake of it. As the country gears up to harvest its kharif bounty, Maity speaks about her practice and its links with the changing socio-cultural landscape of an erstwhile farming community. Edited excerpts:
What is your earliest memories of engagement with art?
I had always been fascinated to see my mother make gahana badi, a popular delicacy of Midnapur district (West Bengal), made out of finely ground lentils. Gahana in Bengali means jewellery, so the name was coined for the brilliant design that went into the dumplings. My mother also stitched beautiful kanthas and I used to help her in all these activities. Her sense of craftsmanship and aesthetics influenced me. It took me years to understand the technique and skill to make art. I used to love to draw plants and flowers. All my notebooks were full of doodles; even the walls and floors of our house had my drawings on them.
How did you develop the unique process of transferring images on to metal plates to express your ideas?
Image transfer on metal plates is one of the mediums I have extensively developed to represent my ideas. I am working in the Chhota Nagpur plateau region, which is spread across the states of Odisha, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. All of them have numerous iron-ore mines to cater to the steel industry. Hence, the material is quite appropriate to the context. The technique and the final visual outcome also simulates printmaking, a medium that I have been trained in. It creates a unique layer of the photographic image on an iron sheet and enhances the character of the material itself.
Your work focuses on the plight of the marginalized communities such as miners, plantation labour and farmers. If you could elaborate on that…
Mines and related industries require a huge amount of land for their operations. Similarly, rubber plantation is established often by eliminating existing land owners. In such cases, a vast population, mostly from the marginalized communities, lose its custodianship of the land. This naturally has an impact on their livelihood, but additionally transforms the socio-cultural framework within which they function as well. For example, jum chaas (step cultivation) used to be the primary profession for the indigenous communities of Tripura. They used to celebrate each season with diverse and rich traditions during sowing and harvesting.
But ever since rubber plantation has developed in the state, many of these rituals have ceased to exist. Similarly, the people in the Chhota Nagpur plateau were evicted for mining and creating dams. Many of these people were employed in the mines and industries as unskilled labour. The impact of establishing a large-scale project often has far reaching socio-cultural influence that we seem to pay no heed to.
Could you share your findings from recent research in a village that has over the years lost its very culture and social fabric around the harvesting of kharif crop?
I have extensively visited the villages of Jhargram district of West Bengal. Geographically, they are a part of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, bordering the state of Jharkhand, with a large proportion of the population belonging to tribal communities. I met families, which had migrated from nearby villages, as their land had been acquired for hydroelectricity projects. Though they were traditionally farmers, the villagers are now all daily wagers. Construction of dams impacts the natural course of rivers in the region. Deforestation also reduces water-holding capacity of the land. All of this has made farming tough to sustain. Almost all the families have at least one member, who has migrated to a city or an industrial town to work as labour. What is noteworthy is that community traditions, festivities and celebrations, prayers and rituals, all revolved around harvesting the kharif crop. And now, either these are followed as hollow rituals or with time they might abandon that to also celebrate Halloween.
How do you see art as a medium to bring forward such stories?
I strongly believe that art plays a crucial role in contributing to the progress of a society. Narrating stories of the land and the people of marginalized communities through visual representation is vital. I am working on a body of work that take notes from all the ‘edits’ in the socio-economic structure of the villagers I have interacted with.