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‘The sea has many histories’

Exploring new imaginations of our relationships with nature: ‘Engines’. Photo: Ravi Agarwal

Exploring new imaginations of our relationships with nature: ‘Engines’. Photo: Ravi Agarwal  

Photographer Ravi Agarwal has an intense relationship with water. Not only as an activist is Agarwal engaged with urban ecological issues but as an artist as well. Founder of environmental NGO Toxics Link, Agarwal shifts his gaze to the sea this time around. His upcoming solo show of photographs and videos, ‘Else, All Will Be Still’, is on at Gallery Espace, 16, Community Centre, New Delhi from April 8 till to May 7, 2016.

Excerpts from an interview:

From your interactions with fishermen, what do you understand of their relationship with the sea?

The fishermen know the sea and its moods, the weather and its currents, like the back of their hands. They are very respectful of it. If it is stormy or if the waves are big, they do not go out, for they know the power of the ocean. They co-exist with humility. They fish in it, but never think they are bigger than the sea. Nature is always bigger for them. The words they use to describe the sea include the names of the fish, the politics of the port that causes their coastline to change, the local politician who helps them with accessing markets or lobbies for their rights, and so on. They are words resulting from a lived relationship with the sea and not words of aesthetic distance. My work ‘Rhizome’ deals with this.

‘Else, All Will Be Still’ comes across as a strong political statement. What led to this piece?

Today, scientists say that the ecological future of the planet is in the hands of humans. New realisations show that our Cartesian dualism with nature has been silently influencing resource use, migrations, conflicts, landscapes, boundaries, social relationships, culture, livelihoods and technology choices. We need to question everything we have taken for granted, so far. I am interested in exploring these questions from the ground up, especially about new imaginations of relationships to natural ecology. My trips to a fishing village in Puducherry, where I had my first real encounter with the sea, posed these questions for me. I was struck with the changing lives of fishermen as their coastal fishing beaches were eroded. I was also struck by their integral relationship with the sea, which was about their lives, culture and economy. Thirdly, I saw that all fishermen were not equal. Those who could afford large boats could go farther and catch more fish. It seemed as if all the questions concerning ecology globally were present here: equity, erosion and the future of livelihoods. It set off a two-year engagement, which has not ended.

You have been interested in water for a long time. You have been photographing the river since the ’90s and also started mounted a public art festival, ‘The Yamuna-Elbe Project’, in 2011. How different is it with the sea?

I feel the sea. I do not know it, cannot know it, and it is possibly unknowable. It is a fascinating terrain of contestations between nature and man. I have often gone out to sea in a small catamaran with a fisherman. All that was between my body and the deep sea was a very small layer of fibreglass. I felt very vulnerable. My ‘ground’ shifted. I was no longer in control. The sea was. The river is a very different body of water. One can see across it, there is an other side, while the sea seems endless. The power of the sea is massive and it can change from day to day. The sea has many histories, on different shores and distant lands. However, as the iconic work ‘Fish Story’ by the late photographer and theoretician, Alan Secula, shows, it also has a global history of capitalism. This body of work is about cultural imaginations and the politics of nature.

What inspired you to look into Tamil Sangam poetry? How did you discover it?

I discovered Tamil poetry while speaking to a Tamil poetess. I was thinking of how people imagined nature before the advent of modern ideas, or pre-modernity. Sangam poetry is written between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., and very little of it survives today. In fact, I was told that earlier eras of Sangam poetry had not survived the passage of time. Within Sangam is Akam poetry, which is about human interiority, relating to nature and its landscapes. It is love poetry. For example, Neithel Sangam poetry is about the sea and the idea of longing, waiting and pining for loved ones to return. It somehow fuses the subject-object duality we have come to accept today — that nature is something outside us. These ancient subject-object ideas of man and nature complicate this relationship. We are not nature but we are also nature. We are non-dual, yet we have duality.

These ideas have been lost when we think of sustainability in contemporary global terms. I feel that retrieving the complicated relationship puts us back in a place where we are located with nature in a co-existent way rather than a dualistic way.

Tell us about your works, ‘Ecological Manifesto’, ‘Coordinates’ and ‘Salt Pan’.

‘Ecological Manifesto’ is a series of three photographs of the ancient catamaran, with text embossed from my diary. It is a reflection of the idea of ecology and the institutions that control it as a means to unlock our current thinking. ‘Coordinates’ is about the Cartesian duality of power relationship in the global and the local. While there are global conversations about ecology and climate change, nobody involves the people who still live off nature and will be most impacted by it.

‘Salt Pan’ is a white-blue landscape that I found fascinating. The sea is about 3.5 per cent salt. Salt is basic to human life, and has a long political history. Salt is extracted manually, by labour. It has deep resonance with me.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 2:14:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/shailaja-tripathi-interviews-artistactivist-ravi-agarwal-on-his-fascination-with-the-sea/article8422383.ece

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