“Look at the zameen (land) … look at the par (border)”. Horizons, disputed land and fenced boundaries is what may instantly come to mind with this line. But if in Bangladesh, this would most likely be a phrase thrown at you by “a salesman at a saree shop”, relates photographer Munem Wasif. As a South Asian, well familiar with the saree and its anatomy, it won’t be long before a crisp, tangible image of the garment being flown open before your eyes, billowing for just a breath or two, before landing in your lap, emerges in your mind’s eye. You wouldn’t need anything more than mentally running your hand across the cloth to know the zameen from the par . So entrenched are these sensibilities in the culture of a certain region that even geo-political borders fail at fading them out.
Jomin o Joban / A tale of the land , Wasif’s first solo show in India, which opened last weekend at Project 88, presents a complex gamut of interconnected stories that spill across the globe as an invisible map, with present day Bangladesh at its epicentre. But at the heart of it, it really is a tale of land, rooted in the history and memory of a nation, that quite like its neighbours was and will always be majority agrarian by default. The mirror Wasif holds up to the current state of affairs in Bangladesh, where a failed modern system of trade and economy is damaging the state’s intrinsic eco-system, also ends up reflecting an image of India’s ongoing agrarian crisis where farm land and farming/ agriculture is forced to take a back seat in the face of burgeoning industrial development.
The show, which comprises of three interlinked bodies of work, is as much a journey of self-discovery and going back to one’s roots for Wasif. Commencing with ‘Land of undefined territory’ – a series of 21 photographs of a hilly, gravel filled terrain near Silchar on the Indian side and Sylhet on the Bangladeshi, Wasif’s images are a panorama of seemingly repetitive shots of this bare land. With almost no human presence in the frames and the grey, low-contrast tones accentuating its vagueness, he helps strip the space down to near anonymity. “Who owns the land? Like, what is the meaning of the land and what is the meaning (of the) relationship between the land and the people…how can you own a land and how can you disown a land?”, wonders Wasif, refering to all parties involved in the transactional, “distant relationship” that they share with this particular piece of land. The government, the farmers who double up as stone collectors and the businessmen who employ them, are all indifferent to the fate of this place and exploit it for what it can give them. The uninhabited terrain, grazed by truck tyre tracks that run through its undulating surface, is proof of this careless plunder. The ennui of frame after frame, of maze-like pathways, hillocks and crevices, are for Wasif, reminiscent of the absurdist, existentialist play, Waiting for Godot that explores similar themes of boredom and pointlessness.
The work also questions the idea of a border zone. As Wasif points out, most soldiers guarding the border are usually from far flung corners of the country, which makes it easier for them to disassociate with the land as alien territory. One wonders what civilians might make of borders? Is that which fills our collective imagination of a border taken from pop culture? In the bloody history of Partition, the border became a symbol of definition of two separate entities. But where precisely does one draw the line, where does one end and the other begin? Are political boundaries true markers of differentiation?
Right to livelihood
For Bangladesh, even as erstwhile East Bengal in undivided India, rice and jute were always two immensely celebrated crops. Rice to West Bengal and Bangladesh even today is staple, with the latter home to 5000 odd varieties of rice. Nabanna , a popular harvest festival for both states, celebrates the naba anna or the new grain, affirming the importance of the crop to both livelihood and lifestyle. Wasif’s second body of work ‘Seeds shall set us free’ is a reverence to rice – to the grain as well as the process of production. He does this with a set of 50 cyanotype images, where 14 of them are individual frames while the rest 36 form a composite grid.
It is interesting to note Wasif’s use of this unconventional form of printing, a rarity today, where like in rayography, the objects are directly placed onto paper coated with ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide, and exposed to sunlight/UV light. What one gets are gorgeous looking images - white impressions of the objects against a Prussian blue background. To Wasif, not only does the blue closely resemble indigo, which as a cash crop destroyed a lot of farmlands during the Raj, when farmers were forced to grow the crop for trade purposes; but also that a cyanotype is referred to as a blueprint in architectural jargon – which is a drawing of the basic framework or the foundation on which an entire structure is built. Impressions of insects, tools and other elements that augment traditional farming methods, are also part of this series, as an ode to a more holistic, organic course of action based on indigenous knowledge of the process, that remains largely undocumented in any physical, tangible form. The rice grains move across the blue canvas, sometimes as a bindi on a woman's forehead, sometimes as a festive necklace and sometimes as a thin quivering border that splits the frame in two, but always as something that is unanimous to the common culture/s of the Indian subcontinent.
Man and machine
For Wasif, the cyanotype is also an effort to break away from his earlier narrative storytelling method which he describes as “spoon feeding” owing to its direct, linear format. As is the video, titled ‘Machine Matter’, the third and final act of his show. The 15 odd minute long film, visually enchanting no doubt, but a bit of a stretch on the time front, explores the bond between man and machine by juxtaposing shots of an old jute mill with close up shots of an ageing ex-mill worker. Jute, again a crop native to Bangladesh and grown on the same piece of land as rice, but in a different season, was exploited for trade and business by the British since as far back as the 17th century. With Partition in 1947, manufacturing units based outside of Bangladesh, closest of which was possibly Calcutta, were rendered inaccessible. The disruption in the trade flow as well as the rise of cheaper, durable, easier to produce synthetic fibres in the 1960s, lead to the steady decline of demand for jute. Just like (erstwhile) Bombay’s cotton mills, the jute mills of Bangladesh also shut down, one by one over time. One such mill, featured in the video, is home to cobwebbed machines, that look like they were shut down for the day, just yesterday. The stagnant bits of movement caused by wind resemble the slow heaving of the worker, both resembling a house that refuses to let go that last breath. The sturdiness of both man and machine come through, as does their inevitable inutility in a world that has moved on to faster, lighter, sleeker.
The more Jomin o Joban delves into Bangladesh’s present, the more it scrapes off its past. A project like this is structured like a tree where the roots are inherently united with the branches, where to access the inside, one might need to make their way from the outside. Wasif isn’t oblivious to Bangladesh’s precarious position as one of the “global countrysides” for the West, where cheap labour rules the roost and the only equation there exists is one of exploitative dependence as against that of interdependence or self sustenance. We, as South Asian, “young, developing” nations, all tend to inadvertently fall into this quagmire, in one way or another. “We are living in a global, post-liberal, capitalist society where we don’t know what we consume. We wear jeans, the raw material comes from China, it’s produced in Bangkok, shipped in US…that’s what we are proud of, no? This is the new global economy,” laments Wasif.
Perhaps, there is some truth in Wasif’s carefully framed title, maybe it will truly be the seeds that will set us free eventually.
Jomin o Joban / A tale of the land is ongoing at Project 88, ColabauntilDecember 8