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Why should Art Focus on Society Today? Arunkumar HG explains

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

Climate change, ecological impairment, and sustainable solutions have become a springboard for the thoughts as well as actions of concerned citizens all over the world. The agricultural nation of India continues to fight against the ill-affected intervention of incessant usage of chemicals and pesticides. Talking and discussing at length with Arunkumar HG, I was heart wrenched to realize the pitfalls of corporates’ political and economic reforms that manufacture these chemicals in the name of the benefits but play it vice versa — the monetary benefit is a subtext to these activities.

Arunkumar had been investigating these issues for a long time. He is the co-founder of Sustainable Alternatives for Rural Accord (SARA) centre, an NGO, in Shivamogga district of Karnataka, that invites artists, activists, curators, environmentalists to research in the subject and create site-specific amendments, nurturing social communities. Perpetually questioning the role of art in social development, Arunkumar has resorted to the artistic means that solely propound the idea of biodiverse sustainability. A brief chat snaked into these ‘threats to earth’, to understand a few specific concerns and how Anthropocene is a major problem of the globe today.

AA: I want to know about the ecological concern that you have been examining and studying for so many years. How did it all start?

Arunkumar: Western Ghats is one of the leading biodiversity hotspots of the world. It was very natural for me to have seen the change from the start. I was born here, finished my schooling, and then learned art. Hence, the awareness of the location’s significance was imbibed since the beginning. I had realized if we do not take care of the deteriorating ecosystem now, this will all be gone!

Observing the agrarian and environmental issues, I tried evaluating the complexity of the situation and the nuances of the degradation. However, the present situation has become so grave that the present generation has begun raising the voices against the bureaucracy, which Greta Thunberg is doing.

“Why did Greta Thunberg, a 13-year-old girl, have to do it? It is because she had a very natural question and concern. We are not consoling ourselves that everything will be alright! They are worried and want to do something and also prove it via actions.”

Since 2002, I have begun expressing this issue in my works. Later, as I ventured deeply I realized this is the most important and threatening issue we are facing. And there is nothing more urgent! The Climate crisis affects all of us equally. It is more alarming tha the present pandemic of COVID. Draughts, hurricanes, excessive rains are products of this climate crisis. And it's not going to be alright. We cannot neglect by closing our eyes. So, I came up with the idea of setting up a centre to raise awareness in children, the new generation, and locals. Besides, the programs of SARA are part of my art practice.

Swagrama, one of SARA’s significant initiatives, integrates Swa- as Swaraj and -grama as a village. Swagrama is an idea of an independent village, which runs with the Gandhian idea of Swaraj, self-governance. The project involved four villages and materialising the ideas of education through art, awareness of policies, and domestic health aids for overall development approach, which also includes water security, etc.

AA: Could you share in detail why did you start the Swagrama?

Arunkumar: In the Swagrama project, we have been working at the grass-root level. We call the locals, who have been taking care of and enriching the land, as ‘vulnerable guardians’. One of my artworks series is inspired by ‘vulnerable guardians’. For us, they are the ‘Keepers’ of biodiversity, food diversity, environment etc.. If we do not safeguard these folks, we might lose the beauty of our natural topography.

Because they cannot meet their financial expectations, they are now forced to cultivate commercial crops like ginger and rubber over traditional ones like rice or millet. There is not much appreciation in the price for their produce as compared to other essential commodities. Paddy procuring rate has seen only 10% appreciation in the last 10 years. I have been photographing the changes for a decade. Consequently, they have resorted to utilising industrial fertilisers and other chemicals that speed up cultivation, thereby reaping quick financial benefits. These are heavy and fatal chemicals, indirectly consumed by every one of us and the locals through grains and vegetables. Farming has become more business than nutrition. We all have lost ourselves in this game of money. And, we cannot depend on the chain of professionals who endorse these. For me, SARA is the first step towards amending some bigger changes against these monstrous money-minting industries. Even organic products cannot be trusted! And, ‘differently educated’ farmers are not aware of the repercussions of these fertilizers. I highlight these concerns in one of my works, Bhumi ki Khurak.

Not only do our farmer communities need to be aware of the chemicals they handle for the produce but also consumers should know the quantity of these chemicals in their food. It is a fundamental right of the farmers as well as the consumers in the absence of systemic information and exposure.

Last June, we completed one year of Swagrama. To establish sustainable values in rural India, Swagrama aims at strengthening the rural economy and creating awareness among the farmer communities regarding the chemicals. The rural workers eventually return back after failing to adjust to the urbane. And India has observed the shift to cities immensely.

“So it is not just about one chemical or things, it is about the whole staircase of events in the ecosystem that af ects the weakest and the most fragile, living beings or biosphere.”

Roundup is a herbicide manufactured by Bayer, the world’s largest pesticide German producer. The roundup usage has evidently caused non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer, to the farmers, who have reported and eventually seen the light of judiciary success. But, the treatment of cancer, because of Roundup, has snatched their peace and productive years. Subsequently, Bayer had to pay more than 10 billion dollars to settle the legal cases, worldwide.

Like Roundup, what chemicals in India are grave, and they ought to be controlled in their utility?

I shared about Roundup because the producers could not assure the safety standards and the fight against it has eventually met with success and compensation in the US. It was a way to explain the ubiquity of negative effects by these products in the ecosystem. Premature death in rural counterparts is one of the serious concerns. So it is not just about one chemical or things, it is about the whole staircase of events in the ecosystem that affects the weakest and the most fragile, which are living beings or biosphere. And, the way city people have the resources to buy quality products, villagers are bereft of such opportunities. They have to utilise contaminated stuff like water, etc.

Endosulfan is a toxic insecticide, which is having a substantial adverse impact in Kasargod district in Kerala. The agrichemical harms not only human health but also the environment. It causes neurological problems, deformed births, development of carcinogens, among other health-related issues. Apparently, Endosulfan was excessively sprayed on cashew farms of Kasargod. Government and intelligence are not paying that much heed and irrelevant to them if we do not take some measures then who will do!

How has it affected native farmers?

The land size owned by a farmer is decreasing as the generations move further. The large piece of land is divided amongst the sons, which eventually brings down to a very tiny plot. However, the law, which was recently passed, allows anyone to buy the land which was not the case in the past. But with so many revenue problems, today farmers don't want their heirs to continue the same work. They want to move to cities and earn better!

Your artworks and series like Timeline of Backwash, Construction series, Wheels of Faith, I feel, narrate Anthropocene’s incidents.

Wheels of Faith was a site-specific installation at Bhubhaneshwar Art Trail. The traditional wheels, made from trees, are used for regional processions. As an idea towards the repetitive faith and traditional beliefs which is practiced every year, I posed the two wheels in a criss-cross manner. With due respect to the communal faith involved, I had just made them stop from rolling as an idea of contradiction.

Wheels of Faith, 2018, Found chariot wheels of a temple, 96 x 96 x 96 in, Bhubaneswar Art Trail

Timeline of Backwash stands on the concept of two to three hundred years of the industrial revolution. The pace of destruction was not so rapid like it happened with the onset of the revolution. With consumerist culture, I believe what our ancestors could not do in 1700 years we the past few generations, did in a mere two centuries. The installation presents graphics and archives of documentation commissioned by Hendrik van Rheede, the Dutch governor of Malabar. Hortus Malabaricus, a latin book conceived by the governor, was published in Amsterdam after 30 years of fieldwork research between 1678–1693. The graphics represented flora and fauna of the western ghats as he was very fond of them. The two important things, the record of the topography and the onset of the industrial revolution, mark the identity of the Timeline of Backlash.

Timeline of Backwash, 2015-20, Wood collected from Industrial scrap yards, floor paint, silkscreen printing

Construction was an experimental series where I am trying to decode the meaning of the word and relate it with destruction. I have portrayed a human figure to project the idea that human-centric activities are catapulting the whole game. The construction process, which uses concrete, wood, and metal, is exactly applied to construct the human figure. The two identities are overlapped in a way as if a monumental human is mirroring or replicating itself in the world.

Con-struction I, 2018, Reclaimed packaging wood from an industrial scrap yard, recycled paper pulp, cement, wood glue, 107 x 40 x 26 cm

Arunkumar’s efforts through SARA have implemented several initiatives. Lake Rejuvenation Actions, a crucial part of Swagrama, emphasises retention problems of lakes of western ghats. The storing capacity of the lakes is conducive to the farming and livelihood in summers. However, borewell technology has affected this natural cycle of water bodies.

Overviewing the unfavorable activities, can we conclude that this is a battle between civilisation and nature? Hence, who will be the winner? This isn’t about winning or losing, it is about suffering and humans pose as both culprit and victim!

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