Canvassing a conscious choice

On World Food Day, here are three stories of Indian artists, who moved beyond their chosen field, sought inspiration from farms and farmers, and brought a change in their lives.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

CHENNAI:  The future belongs to nations with grains and not guns. — MS Swaminathan Human evolution leans fundamentally on the backbone of food. It was food that determined the journey of prehistoric man. Agriculture tamed and domesticated him. Hunger drove him to the edge of insanity.

Famines wiped out entire populations. We may at times fail to acknowledge the profound impact of food and the lack of it in shaping our world, but on World Food Day, it’s time to take a serious look at food security and the factors that have been affecting it. Here are a few artists who have remained committed to these concerns by not just creating artworks that address the issue but have also brought these changes into their life choices.

Udumbanchola initiative - The Food Forest

Artist Vivek Vilasini’s artworks have always loudly proclaimed his deep concerns about the environment, especially climate change. Although as an artist, he addressed varied matters relating to the world around him, Vivek felt that with regard to climate change, the need of the hour was to adapt and find solutions, if possible.

It all began with a chance meeting with Gopalkrishnan and his wife, who had taken up the challenge of converting an area stripped clean of its green cover into a forest and succeeded in their efforts. They were inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer celebrated for his natural farming, and on their advice, Vivek went on to read Fukuoka’s book titled, The One-Straw Revolution, the story of a man who reinvented agriculture after being disillusioned with industrial agriculture.

Thus inspired, he set forth to start his food forest in Munnar. Why Munnar? “Munnar, though well known for its tea plantations, has been subjected to an imbalance in the ecosystem due to deforestation and monoculture farming practices. I wanted to restore the ecological balance and turn the soil healthy again. That’s how my food forest project began,” says Vivek echoing a million hopes in his voice. 

He went about cultivating a diverse range of crops and trees, shrubs and spices, gathered from local farmers as well as sourced from all over the world. “I am just trying to merge what would work in our microclimate. In this age, how does one adapt to changing environmental conditions? That is my chief concern and the reason behind this project.”

Artist’s garden

When Sunoj D and Namrata Neog founded Lakshmi Nivas in Parudur, Kerala in 2018, it was a natural extension of their life, art, and beliefs. Both their art practices had always explored the connection between food and nature. Shifting from their life in a metro to a village in Palakkad and co-founding Lakshmi Nivas was but a logical physical translation of their ideas.

One of their projects titled ‘Desert is a Forest’ at the Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai, is an artist’s garden developed by the duo which not only visually narrates the history of the plant ecology of UAE but also delves into the inter-relationship between all living beings. The garden consists of a wide variety of vegetation that grows naturally as well as mineral deposits, thus pushing us to reimagine a desert as a forest.

“Food is what connects all beings to the landscape. This is where the inter-connection lies too, along with the politics of this network. We also study food as medicine. Our goats at Lakshmi Nivas are our botanists. We want to relook at the politics of farming and domestication in order to understand narratives in history,” say Sunoj and Namrata emphatically.

Art for farmers’ rights

For Shweta Bhattad, a Nagpur-based artist, art is beyond institutionalised spaces and decorative purposes. For years, she has strived to bring a voice to the Indian farmer’s plight through her works. “How could the one who fed others be out of resources and food for oneself?”, was what perplexed and often infuriated her.

Through her community art project, Farmers Haat, Shweta brought together people from all walks of life, who shared her interest in helping the farmers and tried to provide a platform to serve as a connection between the farmer and the consumer to sell their produce directly. She even buried herself two feet underground in a wooden coffin for three hours, while constantly writing the word ‘Vishwas’ or faith, as part of a performance to highlight the appalling situation of the farmers.

Shweta has been actively involved in finding ways to integrate art, agriculture, and the life of agricultural workers through another art project, Gram Art Project, and has taught rural women to make postcards and rakhis with seeds embedded in them, which once in disuse would give life to a sapling if tended to. She brought artists and farmers together to make land art installations in an attempt to revisit traditional methods of farming and irrigation. The coexistence of starvation and food wastage and the dire need to find that balance is what this artist wants us to ponder about.

In 2022, the Global Food Security Index ranked India at 68th with regard to food security. Increasing productivity is not the blanket solution. As these artists have shown with their practices, it is equally important to understand the very nature of the food we consume, while forging a bond with it that goes beyond the serving plate.

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The New Indian Express