Activist as artist

Photographs from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands printed on raw silk glimmer with beauty, but also with compassion

February 27, 2016 04:20 pm | Updated 07:50 pm IST

The photo ‘Breathing roots of a mangrove forest’

The photo ‘Breathing roots of a mangrove forest’

Some two decades ago, Pankaj Sekhsaria flunked his engineering viva voce and headed to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to spend time with a friend posted in the Navy. Little did he realise that it would be the beginning of a life-long association with the islands.

Noted environmentalist and activist Sekhsaria has since written extensively about the region, about the threats facing its indigenous communities, and the biodiversity of the islands. He has initiated litigation against various development projects that endanger the aboriginals and also written a novel that is set there, The Last Wave. In the process, Sekhsaria has created an enviable personal archive of photographs that are witness to his abiding academic, environmental and emotional investment in the region.

Island Worlds, recently held at Pune’s Gyaan Adab, showcased an array of these island photographs. His motivation was to create an imagery of the islands that goes beyond the exotic sights often peddled by tourism websites. However, that shouldn’t imply that the exhibition was bereft of picturesque landscapes, mangroves, forest canopies, and rainforests that dot the topography of the place. Sekhsaria is not a prejudiced chronicler. In his selection of photographs, the seen as well as the unseen find equal representation. He is a close observer of the invisible creature — the sea anemone and the fiddler crab — but also of the giant leatherback turtle, the mangrove forest and the great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve. From the majestic white-bellied sea eagle to the minor jellyfish, nothing escapes his lens.

Interestingly, the exhibition showcases the photographs printed on raw silk fabric. This adds an extra dimension of luminosity, with the light seeming to penetrate the canvas and enable many ways of seeing; a subtext of memories and the photographer’s myriad experiences.

The fabric and photography interface is perhaps a muted endorsement of two kinds of artistic acumen, one traditional, the other nascent yet more mainstream. Beside the visual splendour of the island flora and fauna, Sekhsaria’s photographs also address environmental concerns — there are people working in a plywood factory, a forest on fire, the living roots of a mangrove tree. The comment is implicit. There are no provocative titles but the selection and arrangement of the images in a sequence of several others demonstrate social change, skewed entrepreneurial vision and much more.

Another historic photograph has a Jarawa woman being offered food by a bus driver on a stretch of the Andaman Trunk Road that was the centre of controversy a few years ago. Activists pointed out that the road was endangering and demeaning the Jarawa tribe. Sekhsaria’s photograph, along with two others, was submitted to the Supreme Court as part of the effort to show the negative impact of the road, especially when it is considered that a prime reason for the road was to access timber from the Jarawa forests. There is a thin line that separates art from propaganda and Sekhsaria’s work reiterates that the artist and the activist are not quite mutually exclusive.

Kunal Ray teaches English Literature in Pune and writes on art and culture.

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