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How an artist is responding to climate change

By repurposing discards to create alternate ecosystems, Santanu Dey places environmental issues at the heart of his practice

For Santanu Dey, interventions are potent ways to remind people of the urgency of climate change
For Santanu Dey, interventions are potent ways to remind people of the urgency of climate change

In recent weeks, there has been an increasing discourse around human-induced climate change, especially in the run up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference to be held in Glasgow between 31 October and 12 November. The UN Secretary General António Guterres has said, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable. We must act decisively now.” In such a scenario, arts play a critical role in taking these conversations to people from all walks of life. And 39-year-old Santanu Dey is one such artist who is creating awareness about this subject through his subjects and materials.

While growing up in Kolkata, Dey was in awe of the local idol makers, who would create gigantic forms of Goddess Durga. The process would last several months, eventually culminating in breath-taking idols. Eventually he started participating in this ritual as well. “I enjoyed the process of sculpting and took admission in Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata”, he says. In place of expensive material, Dey would end up using inexpensive and found material like cow dung and slag. 

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When he moved to Delhi in 2014, the rampant, unplanned construction was unsettling. Within a short span of time the green in the city changed to grey. “Though we are aware of the physical change, we rarely acknowledge the psychological effect of it all,” elaborates Dey. He was compelled to respond to this through his art by imagining alternate worlds and ecosystems.

Today, materiality is very important to Dey. What began as a way to save money has become his preferred material for his work. “I used to collect scrap from local workshops,” he reminisces. Over time, he realized that every object has a history, with it being a repository of information. And this understanding has added a critical layer to his art. Besides, repurposing the discards enhances the very intent of his art—to care for the environment.

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In 2017, he had an opportunity to work with contemporary artist Arunkumar HG, who also engages with ecology in a direct way in his practice, and shuttles between Gurugram and his village in Shivamogga, Karnataka, where he has established the Centre for Knowledge and Environment. “I joined him in Karnataka for the Western Ghat Eco Walk project and later in 2019 for the Gurugram Interactive Public Art Project, commissioned by ‘I Am Gurgaon’ at the bandh area,” he says. For him these interventions are potent ways to remind people of the urgency of climate change.

Dey is now working on ideas of social inequality and migration. He is repurposing wood and iron to portray the urban landscape, layering them to convey the depths of human despair. “For instance, the misery and human suffering during the pandemic found its way into my recent series of charred wood wall-sculptures,” he says. He is simultaneously working on large-format drawings, as well as a book on survival to document our times.

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