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An aesthetic of regeneration

C F John


The five day Art event “Let me come to your wounds, heal myself”, as part of the 9th SeedFest 2020 of FTAK, was an invitation to come home, to our own senses and to claim ourselves: our body, our land, and our bodily connections that preserve and nurture Earth and Life. This cross-disciplinary art project was done in the context of climate change and the alienation we experience today from the interconnectedness of life.


Interesting interactions among the participation

At a time when no limits are set for our thoughts and success, both farmers and seeds stay within limits and blossom a boundless world of Life – an abundance blossomed from limits. What farmers nurture and uphold in this soil is a world of care, attention, resistance, survival, custodianship, togetherness, and sanctity.

A farmer tightly holding on to the Seed and serving as its custodian should emanate a wisdom that the Nation can imbibe for its own healing and regeneration on many counts.

After spending three years with the farmers, something became clear to us: we did not want to create Objects of Art from a concept or imagination, but rather wanted, through artistic interventions open spaces in which one could listen from the trail of silence that the farmer treads, and participate meaningfully for our own common healing. It was a place to recognise, honour and stay with the sorrow; resist, embrace, confess, make covenant, pray and meditate. It was a collective space fostering an act of regeneration.

The art event had 10 installations, performances, and sharing sessions guided by people who have dedicated their life as a sacred duty to preserve and nurture land and communities. It was presented in one-and-a-half acres of land graced by the seeds of sustenance preserved and nurtured by over 70 collectives. FTAK has been fostering them since 2005 as a sacred duty, keeping a covenant between the Seeds and us.

The installations – places of happenings

The Martyrs Wall, 30 feet long and nine feet high, aligned between ‘Custodian of Seeds’ and ‘Soil beneath the feet – kindling imagination’, was made of mud and seed. Above the wall at a height of 30 feet were installed nine prayer flags three feet long, on each of which was written by hand: “It takes an incredible and brave person to stay on with the soil, seeds and sprouting, and if need be submitting to its beating rather than submitting to the misdeeds of men for unethical gains, be it money, power or fame”. The flag fluttered in the air, taking these words of deep respect all the way it can take across the earth.

Another prayer asked “God make me brave for life: … as blown grass lifts, let me rise from sorrow with quiet eyes,  knowing Thy way is wise. God, make me brave, life brings such blinding things, help me to keep my sight…” (a found prayer — anonymous). These prayers were placed against copies of handwritten FIRs of farmers who had shed their lives. These prayers were also whispered into the ears of the dear ones who came close to the wall. The wall bore 12 earthen vessels filled with seeds, and over 150 oil lamps.

Agriculture is defined by real time and is aligned with the proportion of Life. No wonder the farmer often fails when negotiating an unfair market. A wounded body and a handful of seeds are his weapons, not guns, lathis or legal notices. With deep respect and a prayer we dedicated this wall to all those who have shed their lives, and their surviving dependents.

In the midst of the gala of dreams of developmental projects in this country lived people amongst us who, in spite of the wounds, losses, and hostile circumstances, spent their time gathering seeds, caring for it tenderly through sun and mist, planting seeds, sprouting, nurturing, checking pests, and preserving Life and the life of soil. Our dream development projects burned many along with their land. Still, some persist in the same way that a chopped tree puts forth new branches from its remnants. They tried to keep the light of their farms alive, as a sacred duty keeping a covenant between the seed and us.

The ‘Pyramid of Custodian of Seeds’ was a space to salute them. The Pyramid was like the shell of a seed made of loosely woven cotton fabric and bamboo. Within the pyramid was a table made of bamboo and mud which displayed, with respect as we would display holy scriptures, documents on 13 persons from Kerala who were Custodians of Seeds. The visitor entering the pyramid through the slit in the fabric which represents the eye of the seed, becomes one with the seed; it was an act of honouring the covenant between the custodians and seeds.

‘Soil beneath the feet — kindling imagination’, placed behind the Martyr’s Wall, was a space to kindle and foster poetic perceptions of agriculture among children, initiating a process of nurturing a culture of agriculture in the landscape of hearts. We had four one-day workshops as part of this, conducted by Subha Joseph (Journalist), Manu Jose (Theatre), Vinoy Thomas (Creative writing), and Vishnu and Natasha Sharma (New Media). ‘The Soil beneath the feet’ and ‘Custodians of Seeds’ in the back and front of Martyr’s Wall symbolically served as an act of affirmation and reclamation of life. Healing the wounds of the farmers as well as that of the Earth.

The Chair of seed keepers

‘The Chair of Seed Keepers’ was just a wooden chair placed on a platform covered with a red carpet. As a farmer or as a person concerned about a farmer’s living reality, recognising that farmers safeguard many vital conditions for our common existence, if you feel that there are things the nation could do to make their lives better, what could that be? What can you yourself do and what can the nation do? Imagining that you have been asked to make recommendations, or that you have been given the power to decide, you had to take the chair and make a statement. The person who wished to speak from the chair was asked to fill in a form that would ask her to identify herself and speak on what she hoped to do and what she would tell the nation, keeping the farmers as witness. It was on the one hand a platform for a public confession and making a covenant between her and the earth communities, and on the other hand to also become part of the solution and not point fingers at the ‘Other’, the problem. The filled form was displayed on the board next to it for the public to read.

K.P. Mohandas spoke from the chair to the public in the presence of farmers as witness “Farmer is the wealth of the country. He deserves the highest honour. I am ready to be part of the efforts that help protect all the farmers in this country. The rulers of this country should take steps to protect the farmers more than it does the soldiers.” Sojan Kalapura said “just as education is free and compulsory, there should be a law making it compulsory for all citizens to do farming”. The film actor Prakash Raj said, “I say to myself that I need to be a participant on this journey of evolution.. Let’s be empowered with this magic of life, bow to our farmers.” There were around 120 presentations, making confessions and covenants and calling for a change.

The chair was like a seed, it sprouted a consciousness keeping Nation and Earth at the heart.

Things moved us in the direction we hoped and beyond – surprises and learnings

The Human-Animal Conflict and the Trail of Silence was installed as a maze created by loosely woven cotton cloths, 44 inches wide and nine feet high, hung vertically and along a 90-foot-long fence made of old sarees, the same way farmers spread cloth around their land to protect their crops from wild boar. A panoramic view of a landscape depicting the relation between humans, farm land, wildlife and forest was drawn on the sarees. And on the inner side of the same sarees, the visitors wrote their responses to human-wildlife issues to form a quilt of responses.

The form was structured in such a way as to reflect the closely guarded but interconnected lands. Because the borders of the forest and farm lands that the animals cross are not borders for them. For them it is all an extension of one, single land. Similarly Trail of Silence was an expression, through words and images, of the inner worlds of the life of a borderless soil, an invitation to open our senses to closely observe the soil beneath the feet that walk the land. It is about a terrain that is vulnerable and stays subject to every element, force and intervention. The visitor moves through this loosely hung fabric to reach the inner spaces. The installation on human-animal conflict presented the concerns through text, images and sound. A sound piece of about fourteen minutes expressed the concerns over a lopsided forest management policy that simultaneously affects human, farm lands, animals and forest, and also presented the solutions that people of the area suggested. These concerns were supported by documents received from state institutions through RTI, other data from people, handwritten appeals from the residents, sound and images.

Just as the terrain was subjected to all the elements and forces of nature, these two installations too stayed vulnerable. In the night they were soaked by the mist, during the day they shrivelled in the hot sun, absorbed the dust and flapped about in the wind. Though in our workbook we had articulated the intention of subjecting these two installations to the elements, I must confess that I felt uneasy to see the consequence! But for the visitors who were concerned with the subject, it spoke clearly. For some, it was shockingly revealing and gave them information for further dialogue with the authorities. For some it brought them face to face with, and helped clear, their own prejudices. For many it was the voice of their agony, while for some among them it continued to be a point of anger.

The farmers suggest maintaining the forest as a forest so that it would be a haven for the animals. The records show that 25-40 per cent of the forest holds Teak and Eucalyptus. In addition there are invasive killer plant species that choke the forest and deprive wild animals of their food. Above all, construction activities drive the animals towards the farm lands.

When it comes to compensation the farmers say, a yielding coconut tree destroyed by wild animals earns a compensation of Rs 770. A coconut sapling costs Rs 150; digging a pit, filling it with manure, and planting the sapling costs Rs 750. It takes five years for it to start yielding tangibly. Tending it for 10-20 years takes such effort and care. Can you fathom the feeling of a farmer aged 50-60 on the loss of that tree? He does not have years left in him to bring up another tree to that stage of growth. It is to this farmer that you offer a compensation of Rs 770 — less than a day’s wage to an unskilled labourer in the area! For a coconut tree that could yield for him and his children and grandchildren fruit for about 80 years. That is an insult. Even if you reckon the yield for 25 years you should get Rs 25000.

A hectare of paddy would cost Rs 75000 to cultivate. You could harvest from it paddy worth Rs 1.6 lakh. But when it is trampled to nothing by elephants you are paid Rs 11000, so it is with all crops, seasonal or perennial. That is contempt. Contempt for the farmer. Contempt for the act of farming. Contempt for what he nurtures.

For idle spectators the installations were just some loosely flung about fabric with some documents and images. But for others it was as if they were the faithful entering a temple festival ground. Through all the entertainment, the noise, the selling, the sun’s heat and the dust, they could clearly hear the whispering of the goddess from the lips of the ‘velichapaadu’, the priest.

Sunil P Unni who was helping us with the installations spoke on behalf of many, saying, “These installations demolished the understood notions of installation art and the expectations. They are serving as translations. Because these spaces clearly translated the inner workings of the act of farming and seeds. These installations spoke to each one’s right to her own context of life. For a farmer, it inspired her to re-enter and see herself again; for a student it was like a burning coal striking within her, making her recognise that it was her duty to be part of this and to nurture. For a salaried person, he would have wondered why until this day he hadn’t been able to look into the eyes of a farmer, why until now he could not serve as a helping hand to the farmer. These installations taught people, when they walked around seeing the innumerable seeds, also to look at the farmer’s face and see the scars it bears. That is how these forms have made themselves rich. At a time when we’ve got used to seeing art forms that are mystified or remained as spectacle to look at, these are without veils and directly connects to life. It is like it is said in the Bible, they spoke different languages but each one understood it in their own language. Here, people came from different backgrounds but understood from their own level, that is the success of these presentations.” He added, “These installations also hid themselves from some others.”

We were moved that people took the initiative to light all the lamps on the Martyr’s Wall each day when the sun went down. We had planned to light the lamps only on the second day. Some deeply felt that the souls of those who were forced to shed their lives were around. After the lamps were lit, the air was filled with an inscrutable and deep emotion that connected people. We were also moved when we heard that one of the torch bearers whom wanted to keep something from it as a souvenir. It seems he had burnt all the honours he had received in his life, but he wanted to keep this one. There were many such moving stories.

What we wanted to present after three years of our engagement with farmers was the light that the farmers had gifted us. Not our imagination or concepts, not our capabilities, not things pulled out from our own baggage of past engagements. Ours was an attempt to take the visitor to different layers of the story of farmers who work silently day and night like earthworms, nurturing, preserving and resisting, not waiting for anyone.

Yes, the event did not reveal itself to a number of people. That is how things turn out, sometimes. We had said in the introduction to the art event that what we had presented were not Objects of Art to be passively viewed, but spaces to recognise, to honour, to hold, to resist, to nurture, to stay with the agony, to pray, and meditate. “Let me come to your Wounds, Heal myself” provided spaces to open up new sprouts, a germination of something new, and an enhanced experience of living that becomes a work of art. Here, Art gained a new meaning by not making divisions between Art and Life. It provided spaces to engage with it and make it evolve.

The works and spaces aimed to help people engage with the ordinary. Once they learn to engage they start seeing the beauty, they start seeing meanings all around, they see within it the wisdom of our common survival. For all those who could not engage, they saw the yam, chilli, beans and pumpkins as just the same things they normally get to eat. But for those who learned to see, they saw the possibilities of a new sprouting. It was a poetic immersion in the ordinary, recognising the secret of life and its guardians. When someone walked with us through the farm, he exclaimed, “When I walked through these lands, I realised why my nights were not ending.”

The soil becomes complete only when the seeds sprouts, the seed sprouts only when it is touched by water. The water does not have colour, form, fragrance and taste, but when it touches the seed it sprouts all these. The role of Art is that. To touch. It is not the art that should assume the colour, form and fragrance but that which it tries to touch.

The visitor leaves the spaces after listening to the seeds whispering. The visitor has to hold her ears close to the mouth of a clay jar two feet deep. From the darkness of its womb she hears the seed whispering.

“There is a hidden sky in every seed the dream-filled slumber holding its destiny as plant or tree…”
….
every step is a resistance a lonely struggle treading the earth as a prayer –
a prayer of suffering, kindness and hope a prayer for life”
she whispers.
the place for Seeds is Soil – the place for Art is Life.

C F John
25, 1st Cross, 1st Main
Byraveshwara Layout, Hennur Bande
Kalyanagar Post
Bangalore – 560 043, India
E-mail: cfjohn23@gmail.com

*This reflection is on the art event Let me come to your wounds, heal myself — a cross-disciplinary art project
with the farmers collective FTAK.Collaborating artists: Azis T.M. – visual artist, V.T. Jayadevan – poet, Sivadas Poilkavu – theatre artist, M.P. Pratheesh – poet, C.F.John – artist-curator.