Behind every big project are workers whose contribution is vital to its realisation, says photo-artist Samar Jodha in this interview to Reshma S. Kulkarni.

Filled with angst at the irony in the lives of workers who manifest the biggest societal marvels but get no acknowledgment, photo-artist Samar Jodha has vented his unease via “Discord”, a public art installation that is on display at Art Chennai. Excerpts.

What is the basic concept underlying ‘Discord'?

‘Discord' is a project rooted in my two decades of work in India, China, Africa and West Asia as a professional photographer and filmmaker for various corporate and non-profit assignments. The journey has often brought me face to people and issues relegated to the margins of mainstream media and art practice.

One such issue and set of people are workers who help realise the physical ambitions of different societies. Be it building the world's tallest or the longest bridge — every brilliant idea, engineering and ambition finally rests in the humble hands of workers. It is the most tedious, unsung and yet essential part of the process; mostly involving migrants from within or beyond the national borders. They live on-site, in temporary homes and once the job is done, they are out of that place.

There is an irony and discord here. These people, whose hands realise the society's larger physical ambitions, do not get to realise their own modest physical ambitions.

They have no ownership on or acknowledgment for what they create. They leave behind their world to live in temporary homes, in temporary relationships (with employees and co-workers) and in a manner where all their other identities are subsumed. ‘Discord' incorporates and expresses these people, their homes, workplaces, the micro (their individuality) and the macro (the larger project which subsumes and kills that individuality).

Can you describe the installation vis-a-vis how it has been formed?

The whole project weighs over a ton. Each work has been printed on cast concrete wall using a special process. There are seven walls built upon a platform, secured with large bolts onto a metal cage. Thus you get the sense of metal, concrete and the physical toughness that is part of these people's work life.

The project is based on two contradictory keels: belonging and abandonment. Can you elaborate more on this aspect.

Contract workers are brought together for a certain time to work on a particular project. They too have a stake and some sense of ownership in the project. However, this ownership is short and this belonging is temporary.

Like worker ants, they dress the same, have a number and maybe a name but otherwise all the identity is subsumed to this larger project that they work for. Having abandoned what is truly theirs in favour of a promised life, the workers are put together in temporary homes, relationships etc. at the various sites. The temporariness and their connection with the project etc. are all snapped once the project is over. Then they're left to start the process of ‘belonging' all over again in a different place and project. Thus, this belonging and abandonment is a continuous cycle for them.

On another level, while these workers belong to this huge, and sometimes really high profile, project, the only thing truly belonging to them are their own personal artifacts housed in a tin trunk that they carry around in each project viz. a family photo, some religious artefacts and a few personal things. Modest as these maybe, they are an assurance to the owner. He is more than just a number, a faceless person, a temporary and unacknowledged part of a large enterprise.

What derivations about society at large did you reach to after the completion of this project?

I am not a social scientist or policy maker, so I cannot have those kinds of insights about facts and figures etc.

To me, as an artist, the most striking thing is that the stories of these people (even if unseen and unheard), are by no means any less interesting than the big project that they are working on and which will hog all the limelight. One is trying to only look at some of those stories. The face of people or the looks of their living-quarters may change; but they all represent the same set of aspirations and frustrations. There is a certain unifying quality to them.

Whether it be a construction worker from Bihar working at a tech-park in Gurgaon or another from in China working on a dam in Yiling province — both are foot soldiers in that whole enterprise; often exploited, always unsung, and living in dehumanising circumstances. These people leave behind all that is dear to them to be in an alien environment only so that they can make a better life for themselves.

The whole process is physically and emotionally traumatic, frustrating, sometimes fulfilling and occasionally a real disappointment. With illegal immigrants and exploitative work conditions it gets worse.

My project points to this discrepancy, this irony and what I see as discord, which is visible in the fastest growing economies all over the world.

Where and till when will ‘Discord' be on display?

This is a very large Public Art installation, weighing over a ton on a 35-ft-long wall so I cannot take it around as easily as one would like. Its first showing was at the India Art Fair, Delhi, in January. Art Chennai strongly felt the importance to show it here as part of Public Art and they managed to transport this huge work of art all the way from Delhi.