Ravi Agarwal—At sea, on a catamaran

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s choice of the Yamuna banks as the venue for his World Culture Festival, was ill-advised, says photographer and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal, who talks about his upcoming show Else, All Will Be Still.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s choice of the Yamuna banks as the venue for his World Culture Festival, was ill-advised, says photographer and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal, who talks about his upcoming show Else, All Will Be Still.

Ravi AgarwalDelhi-based photographer Ravi Agarwal, founder of Toxics Link, an environmental NGO, has time and again brought to attention pertinent issues around the depleting river Yamuna. For his upcoming solo show in New Delhi, the vast, unknown sea forms the basis of his upcoming solo show of photographs and videos titled Else, All Will Be Still, to be shown at Gallery Espace. He spoke to The Goodwill Project.

Lunar tide, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Lunar tide, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

What inspired Else, All Will Be Still?

In my trips to Pondicherry, to a fishing village, I had a first real encounter with the sea. I was struck with the changing lives of fishermen and their helplessness as their coastal fishing beaches were being eroded. I was also struck by their integral relationship to the sea, which was about their lives, culture and their economy. Thirdly, I was struck how all fishermen were not equal. Those who could afford engines and larger boats could go farther and catch more fish, than those who used traditional fishing methods. It seemed as if all the questions concerning ecology globally were present here, about equity, erosion and future of livelihoods based on nature. I set off exploring the many questions I have been thinking of for some time now, about what ‘nature’ is, how it is culturally constructed and the relationship between nature, labour and our futures. It set off a two-year-long engagement, which has not ended.

How would you describe the relationship of the fishermen to the sea? What are the words they used to describe it?

The small fishermen know the sea, its moods, the weather and its currents like the back of their hand. They are very respectful of it. If it is stormy or if the waves are bigger, they do not go out, for they know the power of the ocean. They co-exist with it with humbleness. They fish in it, but never think they are bigger than the power of the sea.

Nature is always bigger for them. They use words to describe it which have a direct relationship to their lives. They do not see it as beautiful or aesthetically. For them, it is just part of their lived lives. The words they use to describe the sea include those which name the fish they catch, the politics of the port which causes their coastline to change, the local politician who can help with accessing markets or help them lobby. It is not about how beautiful the sea is or as a place for leisure. They are words of a lived dependent relationship with the sea, not words of aesthetic distance.

Has your relationship with the sea changed after this encounter?

Yes, dramatically! My questions have become deeper. I feel I do not know it, cannot know it, and that possibly it is un-knowable. I often went out on the sea on 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 relationship to everything changed. My ‘ground’ shifted. I was no longer in control. The sea was. I learnt that the sea is much bigger than I am; I am nothing in front of it.

Yamuna Manifesto, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Yamuna Manifesto, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Tell us more about Yamuna Manifesto and the 2000-year-old catamaran used by fishermen in Tamil Nadu.

The Yamuna Manifesto was an outcome of the Yamuna Elbe project we did in 2011. It is a series of essays and artists’ contributions. It is meant like a text or a verse of a future, as well as a statement of facts about the river itself. It is meant as a combination of knowledge based on science as well as that based on the political, social and even the imaginary.

The 2000-year-old catamaran used by Tamil Nadu fishermen is simply made by six long and three short pieces of wood (to make the keel) being lashed together to form a boat. It is made from light wood (from which matches are made) from Kerala and shaped into these pieces, and then tied together now by plastic rope. I did not know earlier that the word ‘catamaran’ is a Tamil word meaning Kattu- maran or tied wood. It cannot sink and when one is on it, there is just this wood between the fisherman and the deep sea. It is the most vulnerable one can be and the most functional. It is like man and nature in direct contact.

Sangam Engine IV, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Sangam Engine IV, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Sangam Engine II, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Sangam Engine II, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Tell us about your encounter with Tamil Sangam poetry.

I discovered Tamil Poetry when 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 BC and 300 AD, 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, to what it really is. 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 and nature is always something outside. I feel that retrieving the complicated relationship puts us back in a place where we are located with nature in a co-existing manner rather than in a dualistic way. Today, when we are in the Antropocene and a crisis of the future of the planet, we need to rethink these relationships urgently.

Engines - 20 KM, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Engines – 20 KM, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

What are the challenges that poor fishermen face? Tell us about your relationship with Selvam and what you learnt from it.

Fishermen, especially the smaller ones, those for whom fishing is a livelihood and not a business, are like the small artisans and the small farmers. When they cannot access or afford technology they cannot survive in today’s time. If they cannot scale up, they have no future. But scaling means access to capital and technology. They do not want their children to be fishermen. Also changes along the coast line such as caused by ports, erode their fishing beaches and makes it impossible for them to launch their boats and go fishing. Their livelihoods are under threat. Changes they have no control over, are impacting their lives. Selvam is one such fisherman. He now tries to do other work like taking care of guesthouses to make a living. He however goes fishing at 4 am everyday, but does not want his sons to be fishermen. He became my guide and friend, and also someone who did odd jobs for me. He knew a little English, so we could communicate. I learnt a lot about the ideas and plight of small fishermen from him.

What is the major challenge the Yamuna faces today?

The Yamuna faces three challenges:

  1. a) Untreated waste which flows into it.
  2. b) The threat to the flood plains from alternate land use and its urbanisation.
  3. c) The lack of adequate water flowing into it during most of the year except the monsoons.

However, above all is the idea that the river is only a ‘water channel,’ and not a complex ecological landscape. It is a crisis of imagination and half-baked knowledge about ‘nature’. We know it in bits and pieces, but seem not to understand the river as an entity.

Rhizome, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

Rhizome, photograph by Ravi Agarwal

What did you think of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s World Culture Festival held on the banks of the Yamuna? Was it a positive step for the river and the area?

The step was ill-advised. I was very surprised. The event ventured into a large tract of the floodplain without adequate understanding of flood plan ecology. It also was seen as an event which could have been held elsewhere, and with better management. It did not contribute anything positive to the river and only set a very poor and dangerous precedent. It also was a very bad PR exercise for the AOL. I feel deeply that those who lead us and those who we respect and rever with our hearts, such as our gurus, must set a good example. This was not one.

What are you working on next?

Besides my environmental work, and writings, I have been invited to curate a Public Art Festival in January 2017 by the Goethe Institute in Chennai. The theme is ‘water’. I will be working on it. Also I am part of the curatorial team which is holding the next edition of Pondy Photo 2016 in August this year. Both these will occupy me. Alongside, I am working on a new photographic series of urbanisations.

(Ravi Agarwal’s solo show of photographs and videos titled Else, All Will Be Still, will be shown at Gallery Espace, 16, Community Centre, New Delhi from April 8 till May 7, 2016, 11 am to 7 pm.)

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