For the last two decades, artists Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra, collectively known as Thukral and Tagra, have worked on projects that focus on everything from consumer culture to social issues. In recent years, however, the duo has created interactive art around ecology and climate change.
Their latest work as curators will see them bring art, science, policymaking and climate action together, collaborating with policy research institute and think tank Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) for the inaugural Sustaina India art exhibition at Bikaner House in Delhi from 2-15 February.
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“We have been working actively as a studio for almost 21 years... but our practice from the last five-six years has been about how to reduce waste and work with an efficient carbon footprint,” Tagra says during a video interview. “This understanding of climate change and sustainable life came with the dialogue we had with the farming community.”
Sustaina India is a platform where science will meet art to inspire collective climate action. At its core, the exhibition will feature work from three emerging artists, all Sustaina India fellows for 2023-24—Debasmita Ghosh, Manjot Kaur, and Rachna Toshniwal. Ghosh will showcase her action-oriented research about the change in the ways of life of the Kondh community in Odisha because of climate change. Kaur will present an immersive video installation on forests—the world’s largest natural carbon sinks—and fertility, capturing her forest visits in different parts of India and the world. Toshniwal will present tapestries and other elements woven with ocean waste that washed up on the shores of Alibag, Maharashtra, advocating for a new approach towards waste.
The exhibition, co-curated by writer and curator Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, will also feature works by Gaurav Jai Gupta, Pallov Saikia, Goa’s Edible Archives restaurant that works with indigenous rice varieties, Bhaskar Rao, Shilpa Bhawane, Richi Bhatia, and Climate Recipes, an art project by Mopidevi and Srinivas Mangipudi.
The complete body of work will be a mix of sensory installations, performances, conversations about sustainable, seasonal food and how a detailed understanding of everyday materials can realign our relationship with the environment. Gupta, for instance, works at the intersections of textiles and carbon, while Saikia, an artist, photographer and archivist, plans to archive the land and life in Rohmoria, a region in Assam that has been severely impacted by erosion caused by the Brahmaputra.
Mopidevi says the exhibition is coming to life at a time when the importance of climate-based conversations is rising in India and other parts of the world. Creating awareness and impact around sustainability requires joining forces across disciplines and demographics, he adds. “Echoing this vision, the first edition of Sustaina India will emphasise the magical potential of materials to create awareness through sensory experiences for the audience. These engagements generate new conversations around food, clothing, waste, architecture, forests, and non-humans. In a nutshell, the exhibition emphasises sustainability as a gradual and decentralised process that begins with letting go and reorienting material habits intertwined into our everyday fabric of life,” Mopidevi says in an email.
According to CEEW data, eight out of 10 Indians now live in districts vulnerable to extreme climate events such as cyclones, floods and droughts. Globally, 2023 was the warmest year on record. Mihir Shah, director, strategic communications, CEEW, says despite an increasing body of evidence on the severity of the climate crisis, and clarity on what needs to be done to preserve and rejuvenate planetary health, progress in climate action has been slow due to ineffective communication with the public. “We need intersectional and powerful storytellers for climate action, and that’s where art and artists play a crucial role. They can distil complex science into engaging formats, present impactful on-ground stories, and imagine a better future with a fresh lens,” Shah says on email.
Shah says the aim is to engage distinct sets of audiences through the exhibition: art lovers, storytellers, content creators, scientists, sustainability and policy experts, and young people, including school and college children, who are increasingly aware of the climate crisis and eager to contribute to the solution.
For Thukral and Tagra, this exhibition will mark another step in a journey of evolution that started with tracing their family histories of migrating from Punjab to Delhi. “Working with the idea of migration and diaspora changed our perspective,” says Tagra, describing how the idea of simple landscapes from their families’ past in Punjab, as compared to the urban landscapes they live in now, has also inspired the eco-friendly design of their studio in Gurugram, Haryana, which is equipped with solar panels and a rainwater harvesting system.
They have also dabbled in technology and gaming, painting, archiving and publishing through their studio. While Tagra talks about games like 2030 Net Zero (2022)—which questions our everyday movements, habits, what we eat, and how we live, and its impact on climate events—Thukral highlights some examples of games that they have developed with farmers, like Verbal Kabaddi (2021; a card game with tongue twisters) and Weeping Farm (2022), a 40-minute survival board game that explores the daily trials and tribulations of women farmers.
“We have done some five-six games just with farming community, to highlight the problems they face, especially to the urban audience,” Thukral adds. “The games allow us to connect communities,” says Tagra. “It’s a part of our DNA (as a studio).”
Tagra says many artistic spaces and practices think about climate action, crisis and injustice at a conceptual level. But these ideas are completely forgotten when it comes to the final exhibition. “For instance, a piece of artwork that talks about wetlands in crisis, is bubble-wrapped. Attention to detail is still missing,” he explains. “It’s still a long way to go. But these conversations can happen when we have a dedicated platform. Art communicates what other larger reports and essays may not... It can be a catalyst to communication. That can then turn into a larger change.”