Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Art & Culture > Gram Art Project: A collective rooted in the land

Gram Art Project: A collective rooted in the land

Gram Art Project members are bound together by the ecology of Paradsinga in Madhya Pradesh. The village informs their way of living and practice at the same time

In the 'Cotton Stainers' performance, five women of the collective share their own stories as average rural Indian women.
In the 'Cotton Stainers' performance, five women of the collective share their own stories as average rural Indian women. (Courtesy Gram Art Project)

When I call artist Shweta Bhattad, founder of Gram Art Project, a collective in Paradsinga village in Madhya Pradesh, she is out foraging for grass. These plant fibres will be boiled, beaten, and ground to a pulp to be turned into paper. If it holds, and the surface can absorb ink, the paper will be put into production and sold online to customers looking for sustainable alternatives to everyday products.

This description makes Gram Art Project seem like a small rural business—which it is under the brand Beejpatra—but it is far more than that. It is an amorphous entity, whose members are hard to count or describe as a uniform entity. Some farm, some forage, some work in anganwadis, others as veterinarians and lawyers, and only a few are trained in universities as artists. What binds them all is that they live in Paradsinga, a village of roughly 5,000 residents, close to the border of Maharashtra, where genetically-modified Bt cotton and pigeon pea is grown. Together, the collective members have built installations, presented performances, and held land art festivals.

Also Read: Creating a new conversation from a frayed past

When the collective first emerged as an idea in 2013, Bhattad, who is a trained sculptor and has a master’s in visual art from MS University of Baroda, did not live in Paradsinga. She grew up in Nagpur but has ties to the village—her grandparents farmed and owned land there. Unlike her contemporaries, who were leaving for larger cities, Bhattad started organising residencies in Paradsinga. Of those early years of collaboration with villagers, Bhattad recalls, “We wanted to make things in conversation with people. We did not want to bring in alien materials like paint and canvas and make art.”

This philosophy continues to inform the way in which Bhattad and others of Gram Art Project work—to be neither exploitative nor extractive. Bhattad moved to Paradsinga after two years of travelling back and forth. Bhattad’s interest in preserving indigenous knowledge of the land, encouraging organic farming and multi-cropping, and overturning cycles of domestic and sexual abuse forms the core of the work undertaken by the collective. Dialogue with its varied members is a key component of their methodology, offering compelling possibilities of how art can be made and what it can do.

“I believe in living the process,” Bhattad states, encapsulating how Gram Art Project’s work is embodied—there is little disjuncture between the way in which the members live and the values they espouse in their art.

This embodied approach was central to how five members of the collective devised and presented a performance in Delhi in 2022, titled Cotton Stainers, to share their own stories as average rural Indian women. Apart from Bhattad, the other women were Lilsagar Katre, a seed-saver, Pushpa Sable, a self-taught screen printer, Roshni Narnaware, now working full-time with the collective, and Sapna Dongre, a farmer. In the beginning, the five used to meet in the village anganwadi in order to create a space to share experiences that they would not have related to others. Soon, they realised masks would allow them to narrate incidents of pain without shame and hesitation and so emerged a performance in which these women are also animals and birds.

During the performance, the women wear clothes spun from indigenous cotton symbolising aspects of each of their shared struggles while inhabiting the roles of daughters, wives, and mothers. Narnaware wears dungarees dyed with shapes of various objects from the kitchen. Several times during the hour-long presentation, she gets up from a stool and begins enumerating a list of years—from 2001-20—while holding a rolling pin. The connection, although not explained directly, is that the object triggers memories of violence Narnaware endured at the hands of her own family. In the performance, she uses it to tell her own story. When I call Narnaware at the end of her work day at Gram Art Project’s paper manufacturing unit, she says performing has been a transformative experience: “What was repressed came out at last.”

Every time I speak to a member, I am left feeling that I have not quite grasped the texture of the world they inhabit. To understand the ideas and activities that constitute their practice—emerging from a rural life and rooted in land—I need to imagine concerns and challenges that are distant for a city-dweller, and which do not accord with how artists usually make work in studios.

In Cotton Stainers, the women move in ways that align with the lexicon of contemporary performance art. They learnt the vocabulary of standing, sitting, walking and holding the audience’s gaze during a workshop with Delhi-based choreographer Mandeep Raikhy. Coded in this way, Cotton Stainers would seem familiar to gallery-going audiences but when it was conducted in neighbouring anganwadis, led to confusion and laughter and, finally, discussions about the audience’s own experiences of abuse. The renewal of the performance at different sites, and its differing relevance in each of them, makes Gram Art Project transcend the challenges of operating outside the centre—and, more importantly, their work is not propelled by validation from it.

Since the daily practice of living and dialogue surrounding it are such an important part of the work of Gram Art Project, what part of it constitutes art can seem slippery. Delhi-based curator Vidya Shivadas, who has been working with the collective through various exhibitions and events organised by non-profit Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), where she is the director, says that she finds the collective is singular in nurturing individual energies within it. “We were not perturbed by the question whether this is art or not. It is a practice,” she says. “My idea of the exhibition and the exhibitory has changed a lot. I see it as a node in a process that can be built further on,” she adds. For Shivadas’s last exhibition in Goa as part of Serendipity Art Festival in 2023, Gram Art Project exhibited papers that had seeds embedded within them and featured silkscreen prints by South African artist Rangoato Hlasane.

The collective also sells seed paper as a product, dispersing material knowledge in the form of indigenous plants. The authorship of the paper, just as the ownership of the seeds, cannot be defined and it is in such instances that the collective energy of the project is felt in its full force, whether these products are shown in a gallery or used at home.

Some of Gram Art Project’s products, in particular the seed bands or seed rakhis made from indigenous cotton fibre and which can be planted after use, generate part-time work for as many as 250 women in Paradsinga and 10 other villages around it. Through their effort, 60,000 seed bands from Paradsinga have travelled elsewhere. This immeasurable reach of Gram Art Project’s work makes it hard to define the contours of its audience and the engagement it has led to. One can imagine these plants as art flourishing in unknown locations.

Yet, Bhattad says that Paradsinga has become an assembly point in itself with artists, and experts in medicine, sanitation. law visiting the village to share skills and learn together. This helps “energise” the collective, Bhattad explains, and infuse new ideas. The collective’s project to address open defecation has been ongoing for 10 years, with the plan of building a toilet that adapts the social experience of going to the fields to the need for privacy and safety. The design of the prototype toilet, by Vadodara-based Shakti Bhatt, ensures that the waste transforms into fertiliser for crops and does not have to be released into water bodies. These toilets will be operational in a month in Paradsinga and a neighbouring village, Satnoor.

Bangladeshi curator Sadya Mizan who organises community art initiatives herself under the banner of Uronto, and who attended Gram Art Project’s first week-long residency on sanitation in 2014, tells me how inspirational the collective continues to be for her own practice. “Until now, the observations of those days stay with me,” she says. “What makes them unique is that they are rooted.”

Zeenat Nagree is a writer and curator living between Mumbai and Montreal.

Also Read: Capital art: Your guide to art shows to visit in and around Delhi

Next Story