Thorns in the fields of women farmers

Author-artist Kota Neelima’s art exhibition of photographs and paintings tries to turn patriarchy on its head.

Published: 25th August 2019 12:39 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2019 12:39 PM   |  A+A-

Author, researcher and artist Kota Neelima at her IHC exhibition on women farmers and farmers’ widows

Author, researcher and artist Kota Neelima at her IHC exhibition on women farmers and farmers’ widows. (Photo | Parveen Negi, EPS)

Krishnaiah left to spray the field with pesticide. At home, Chennamma drank it.” This was the last line of a December 5, 2018 article in The Wire titled Why Women Farmers in Telangana are taking their own lives.

The piece documented several case studies, Chennamma’s being one, after she was unable to repay the 1.5 lakh debt she had taken to spend on measures that promised a good crop.

She had later discovered the yield was going to be very little.

Kota Neelima, 48, who wrote the above-mentioned article, has reported widely on nationwide farmer suicides, especially in Vidharbha and Marathawada, for almost two decades.

Kota holds many degrees, including a PhD in Political Science from DU, an MA in International Relations from JNU.

But she’s most known for authoring books on farmer suicides: Widows of Vidarbha, Making of Shadows (2018), Death of a Moneylender (2016), Shoes of the Dead (2013) and The Honest Season (2016). Looming debts, inefficient agricultural planning, low-quality seeds, infertile lands, droughts, poverty, illiteracy, ill health… The long list of reasons, she says, has yet to prompt a knee-jerk reaction among authorities to cough up concrete solutions. Which is why every farmers’ suicide continues to become just another statistic.

But even graver is the plight of women farmers and farmers’ widows. These women have no property rights, no state representation of her rights or interests, have not been educated or given access to the outside world.

All forms of ‘no’ have rendered these women ‘invisible’. In fact, Kota left journalism after the mainstream media was more interested in profiling celebrity weddings and socialities rather than reporting these ills.

Kota is also an artist. And currently, she has identified six such areas in her ongoing exhibition, The Nature of Things: Death and Dualism in Indian Villages; areas that cause enough distress to the ‘invisibilised’, and at times, irk them enough to follow their husbands’ route.

At the show, she’s displayed photographs of widows and women farmers in Beed, Maharashtra, that recorded the highest number of farmer suicides in India over last three years – 651 and counting.

These are photographs of women with whom she’s forged a bond over years, their children, their barely livable brick shanties... Their gods dangle from keychains, or as guardians outside their homes, or are plastered on the walls with photos of their deceased spouse… “So you have to choose who is God here, god being someone the women are constantly trying to hang on to…” says Kota. 

Some women look away from the lens, some fix you with a stare that resonates loss and pain, which can eventually make you look away. Snapshots of their wrinkled hands, adorned in traditional green choodas (bangles) with slivers of gold capture their fingers either outstretched or clasped or interlocked or digging into the skin to make the pain bearable. “I photographed their hands while asking them questions about their lives. Their difficulty to reply shows through their hands.”

The show, she says, is her attempt to awaken the public to this ‘invisible’ section of society and turn patriarchy on its head.

“The country has been trained to not look at some part of its own being – the poor, the labour force and women,” says Kota, sharing how she feels this ‘disconnect’ throughout the nature of her work that requires her to commute to remote villages.

“Some of my photographs are of villages that are just 20kms away from the main road, but it took 3-4 hours to get there because one had to walk through really bad roads. Here in Delhi, even a tiny pothole will lead to social media outrage.”

Kota observes how the country is designed like a man. “‘Mother India’ is a role. It serves a biological purpose to give birth to children, but is not gender-driven.

There are so many instances when a rural woman approaches her bank for, say her child’s treatment, the employees, all-male, won’t even talk to her. Invisibilities as these train women to get easily intimidated,” explains Kota, whose article against the banning of Padmaavat in Rajasthan had the Karni Sena threaten her to apologise or she wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the Jaipur Lit Fest 2018.

She showed up nonetheless. She lets on how men from the villages walk in during her interviews with women to hear what is being recorded. In these cases, she chooses to stay silent till the man leaves. At times, they’ve tried to intimidate her by questioning her motives, but Kota remains undeterred. “I really enjoy pushing that boundary [patriarchy]”, she chuckles.

The exhibits are also part of her ongoing research for State of Working India, Report 2020, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. The stories behind these photographs will be elaborated in the report. “I don’t have the time to blame. Instead, I invest in telling these stories, because I feel I owe it to the women.”

Till: August 29
At: Visual Arts Gallery, IHC

India Matters


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