Stepping up

Artists engage with a land rights movement that touches down in Delhi this October ♦

A photograph by Simon Williams

What do a Delhi painter, an English photographer, a Swiss multimedia artist, and one lakh rural Indians fighting for land rights have in common? More than you’d expect, according to Walking: A Dialogue between Art and Social Movement. The exhibition coincides with a month-long nonviolent march organised by Ekta Parishad, a Gandhian movement working on land rights. While the Jan Satyagraha 2012 March will cover 350km from Gwalior to Delhi, the exhibition seeks to find common ground between protest and the arts, the urban power centre and rural constituency, and India and the wider world.

With recent rustling in the central government over the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Bill, introduced last year to address the concerns of farmers and industrialists, the Jan Satyagraha is a timely citizen’s protest, complementing Ekta Parishad’s negotiations with politicians. Officially established in the early ’90s, the NGO Ekta Parishad grew out of a loose affiliation of various groups in the 1970s, with founder and president Rajagopal PV at its core. From his earlier work promoting nonviolence among dacoits in Chambal, Rajagopal, who is also vice chairman of Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation, has been a lifelong proponent of nonviolence.

Ekta Parishad, which works with about 1,700 local groups across 15 states, held its last major foot march in 2007 – the Janadesh (“People’s Verdict”), to demand a central agenda on land reform. The Centre set up the National Land Reforms Council, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as its chair. But as organiser Aneesh Thillen­kery pointed out when we met him at Ekta Parishad’s Jungpura office, “the interesting thing is that the National Land Council never met… nothing has happened. That is why we started our struggle again.” Ekta Parishad puts forth a broad, inclusive platform: “Our main demand is… comprehensive land reform [and] an implementation system,” said Thillenkery.

British freelance photographer Simon Williams, who has documented Ekta Parishad’s work for ten years, walked with 25,000 people in Janadesh (he was one of about 250 international participants). His photos are one component of the exhibition. “After a few days you get into a rhythm, it’s a kind of walking meditation,” he wrote to us from London. “The energy is infectious… Music and theatre are integral to yatras; throughout, tribal musicians and artists led the march with both formal and informal performances – many improvising on land and forest themes, using traditional songs, rhythms and dances.” Williams captured this energy – and also recorded the mundane but mind-boggling logistics of cooking and sleeping, as well as a commitment to nonviolence in the face of tragedy. “It was very peaceful,” he elaborated. “No one occasion proved this more than when four marchers were killed by a lorry, which lost control and crashed into them, early one morning. Very often in India this would result in a lot of anger. On this occasion that did not happen. The five-hour ceremony that followed in the middle of the road, lead by a group of Buddhist monks travelling with us, was one of the most moving and strangely uplifting things I have ever experienced.” Williams will join the 2012 Jan Satyagraha, though he joked he’ll need “even more chai stops than normal” because of a recent ankle surgery.

Vikram Nayak, whose work will also be in the exhibition, participated in Janadesh as well. Nayak has drawn political cartoons for major newspapers and worked at a slum school run by Katha, but now focuses on painting and filmmaking (he’ll have three paintings and an installation on display). Though he grew up in Delhi, the artist is passionate about land rights and made a short film after Janadesh. He wanted to share rural success stories after the formation of the NLRC, but “I felt that it was not actually a success,” he told us. So he decided to share the travails of people he’s met, “with my Delhi friends – artists, writers… It’s very difficult for them to understand,” he said, “because there’s no connection between these two – city and village. They say ‘Ya, ya, we know, tribals have problems,’ but actually the problem is there is no connectivity.” Nayak hopes the exhibition will spike interest in land rights. “We all need to get together and talk, through our own medium, whatever it is,” he said. For Nesa Gschwend, the Swiss artist, that medium could include installations using old saris, red dye, flour, wax and more; drawing, video, performance, or photos. Gschwend, who told us her “collaboration with Ekta is always [from] an artistic point of view,” will show two videos and release a book.

The exhibition and opening lecture should at least raise awareness about the many, nuanced issues around land rights. According to Thillenkery, the impending Jan Satyagraha (and the culmination of Rajagopal’s yearlong yatra around the country) has already put pressure on ministers to start talking specifics with Ekta activists. “We already do the state process,” he said, “at the same time… whenever you discuss the landless poor people, then it will be a state subject… but Coal Bearing Act, Mines and Minerals Act, SEZ Act, Forest Rights Act – all these are coming from the Centre.” When a lakh of people walk into the capital (or attempt to) around October 28, Thillenkery’s point that “tomorrow, this is also your issue,” should be eminently clear. Get a preview this fortnight.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2012.