A peek into the project

Hello friends, known and unknown to me!

It’s been awhile. I’ve wanted to update this blog for over a month, but the flow of life here in India mixed with the availability of internet and a decent computer to type up a blog post has left me content to wait until the right moment comes to me.

I’ll admit, there were a few opportunities prior to today for me to write. But I was overwhelmed with all of the experiences I’ve had. I didn’t know where to start and how to say all of the things that I want to say in a clear and eloquent way. Or even what all the things that I wanted to say were! Should I try to lay it out linearly…get chronological for you all and start from the very beginning of my time in Mulgavhan — going back to Nagpur and reuniting with Yogini and her family; driving up to Mulgavhan for the first time in 3 years and being greeted by a crowd of kids shouting “Aaron-tai! Aaron-tai!” (Aaron-sister); the highs and lows of reconnecting with the farmers; the challenges and successes of working on an abstract and creative project with them?

And then there was the question of whether or not to include my experiences in the time since solely working on this project. I finished working with the farmers of Mulgavhan back in early November. Since then I’ve visited friends, taken my first Vipassana course, served my first Vipassana course, and done a little bit of sight seeing. Are these experiences relevant? They feel like they are to me, but how to share them in a way that honors the totality of the experience but also connects them to the purpose of this blog, my work with cotton farmers in India?

As an artist, how much of my process do I want to share with my followers? This body of artwork currently evolves and exists in my mind and has yet to be fully realized. How much of a sneak peek am I willing to give you all?

The questions just seemed to multiply and it was easier to just continue putting off the blog writing than it was to try to sort through answering them one by one. I kept waiting for a moment of clarity when I would be swayed by the inspiration goddess within to sit down and write an epic post that laid it all out clearly and with a natural flow. That didn’t happen.

I still don’t know how to write about everything or what exactly to say. I want to share photos. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Sadly, most of the photos that I’ve taken here I plan on using in this body of artwork and I don’t have the capacity to slap a watermark on them so that the originals are safe and sound with me.

So for now, I’ll sum up my time in Mulgavhan and post a few photos of the process (see end of post). Hopefully this little window into my experience here in India satiates any longing you may have to know what’s up with this project and how I am doing. At least until I have another opportunity to write with more detail and depth about the process.

I went to Mulgavhan with the intention of spending three weeks with cotton farmers coming up with a collaborative creative way to represent the issues that they deal with daily as they put an extraordinary amount of work into making a living as a farmer. I intentionally did not outline what I thought that creative expression might look like, fully aware that I was returning to Mulgavhan after three years, that I didn’t know how busy everyone would be as the harvest season kicked off, and that I didn’t have the slightest clue what types of creative expression would resonate with farmers and what they would want to express and how they would want to do that. I was nervous that three weeks wouldn’t be enough time to bring the project to life. I didn’t know what the dynamics would be between my translator, Shubhada, and myself. I wanted the project to evolve organically, something that proved to be extremely difficult when relying on a translator (only because of the lag in communication…Shubhada was a fantastic partner to work with!). I hadn’t anticipated how challenging it would be to try to explain my thoughts on the value of art and using creative expression to tell a story to farmers who had been working hard in the field all day.

It was super challenging. So much so that half way through my time in Mulgavhan I actually had a conversation with Shubhada about leaving early. I was very skeptical that we would be able to do anything remotely close to what I had had in mind when I set out. Maybe we would be more successful visiting another community and trying there? Maybe it wasn’t worth the time and grant money to stay for another week?

We stayed. And a lot of really fruitful things came of our time there, although I had to let go of the vision of collaborating on a piece of art with the farmers. Instead we ended up doing a photo series that the farmers participated in (more on this later, I promise!). In the last week that we were there, we discovered several farmers’ musical talents and recorded some traditional Gondi songs about farming. They even organized a performance of drumming and dancing and a few songs (although not many related to farming, but still really amazing!). If we had been able to stay a bit longer, I would have liked to work with these musicians to write some contemporary songs about farmers’ struggles. And then perform them for larger groups. And have those groups respond to the songs… Maybe some day… I know I’ll be back!

While I was in Mulgavhan I found that in between conversations with farmers, whether out in their fields or in their homes in the evenings, I had all sorts of free time. After many walks and journaling sessions, I was able to be present and release any trace of self-doubt regarding the project. And like magic, without any major commitments vying for my attention, my mind began to collect all sorts of ideas about how to visually represent the stories of cotton farmers in India. When I return to the US in just over a month, a new sort of adventure will begin — how to bring to life the vision in my head (and now scattered on pages throughout my journal). Stay tuned! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before you hear from me again ;)

 

Photography Opening at Left Bank Dance Studio

I recently had the opportunity to select a few photos (out of hundreds!) from my research in India and put together a collection to display at the Left Bank Dance Studio in Alton, IL.  It’s wonderful how these opportunities just keep knocking at my door and I am so grateful for the tangible support of the Arts in the community of Elsah/Alton, IL.

Here are 13 of the 18 photos that are hanging in the beautiful Left Bank Dance Studio. The brick wall is the perfect backdrop for the vibrant colors that I captured with my camera while living in Maharashtra last year. The photos will remain at the studio for several more weeks. Dance on over and take a peek!

Here are 13 of the 18 photos that are hanging in the beautiful Left Bank Dance Studio. The brick wall is the perfect backdrop for the vibrant colors that I captured with my camera while living in Maharashtra last year. The photos will remain at the studio for several more weeks. Dance on over and take a peek!

On Saturday, January 26, I hosted a screening of the film “Bitter Seeds,” the final film in Micha X. Peled’s Globalization Trilogy. Here is the synopsis from their website:

Bitter Seeds follows a season in a village at the epicenter of the crisis, from sowing to harvest. Like most of his neighbors, cotton-farmer Ram Krishna must borrow heavily in order to afford the mounting costs of modern farming. Required by a money-lender to put up his land as collateral, he gambles on everything he has.

When his crop is attacked by pests, Ram Krishna must do whatever he can to avoid losing the family land. Adding to his burden is another duty – his daughter has reached marrying age, and he must find the money for an expensive dowry. Ram Krishna has just become a candidate for joining the ranks of the farmers who commit suicide in despair.

Weaving in and out of Ram Krishna’s story is that of his neighbor’s daughter. Manjusha, a college student, is determined to become a journalist and tell the world about the farmers’ predicament. Her family opposes her plans, which go against village traditions. Manjusha’s ambition is also fueled by her personal history – her father was one of the suicide victims. When a newspaper reporter agrees to look at her writing, Manjusha takes on Ram Krishna’s plight as her first reporting project. Armed with a small camera from the production team, her video becomes part of the film.

The film follows the seeds salesmen from the remote village in the state of Maharashtra to their company’s headquarters. Interviews with seed industry executives (including Monsanto’s) and their critic, Vandana Shiva, flesh out the debate.

Bitter Seeds features compelling characters to tell a deeply moving story from the heart of the worldwide controversy about the future of farming.

“Films like this can change the world.” – Alice Waters

“A tragedy for our times, beautifully told, deeply disturbing.” – Michael Pollan

The film is available on Netflix. If you are interested in purchasing the film, visit the Teddy Bear Films website. I highly recommend seeing it!

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Here I am introducing the film “Bitter Seeds” and briefly explaining what my experience in India was like.

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Watching “Bitter Seeds” at the Left Bank Dance Studio in Alton, IL.

I can’t even begin to explain how neat it was to have that film as a resource for my audience. It was filmed in the region where I did my research about a year before I arrived. Some of the folks interviewed in the film were people that I also met and spoke with while I was in India. It was a great window into the world that I had immersed myself in last year; there were scenes on buses and around towns that felt very familiar to me. As I watched the film with all of the friendly folks that came out to support me and learn more about cotton farming in India, I thought about my friends in India and wondered how their harvest had turned out.

Answering questions about cotton farming in India after the film.

Answering questions about cotton farming in India after the film.

Being able to display my photos, screen this film, and talk with people about my research and my experiences was so gratifying. There were so many good questions about the film and my research. I was thrilled to see a discussion about agriculture in India taking place in the backyard of Monsanto’s headquarters. Here in southern Illinois we are surrounded by farming. Monsanto’s headquarters are just a short drive away in St. Louis, MO. How encouraging, to see people drawing connections from the clothing that they wear to the farmers who grew the cotton a half a world away.

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Mingling and looking at photos before the film.

All photos are for sale and if you are interested in purchasing one, please contact me: amcmullin@gm.slc.edu

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"Afternoon Tea." 5x7 photo with 9x12 mat. $50

“Afternoon Tea.” 5×7 photo with 9×12 white mat. $50

"Waiting for Loan." 5x7 photo with 8x10 mat. $40

“Waiting for Loan.” 5×7 photo with 8×10 white mat. $40

"Distributing the Loan." 4x6 & 8x10 photos with 12x16 mat. $60

“Distributing the Loan.” 4×6 & 8×10 photos with 12×16 white mat. $60

"Playing Cards at the Farm." 4x6 & 8x10 photo with 12x16 mat. $60

“Playing Cards at the Farm.” 4×6 & 8×10 photo with 12×16 white mat. $60

"Buying Cotton Seeds." 8x10 & 5x7 photos with 16x20 mat. $75

“Buying Cotton Seeds.” 8×10 & 5×7 photos with 16×20 white mat. $75

"Blessing the Land for the New Season." 4x4, 5x7, 5x7 & 8x10 photos with 16x20 mat. $75

“Blessing the Land for the New Season.” 4×4, 5×7, 5×7 & 8×10 photos with 16×20 white mat. $75

"Planting 5 Acres of Cotton." 11x14 photo with 16x20 mat. $65

“Planting 5 Acres of Cotton.” 11×14 photo with 16×20 white mat. $65

"Planting Cotton." 5x7 photo with 8x10 mat. $35

“Planting Cotton.” 5×7 photo with 8×10 white mat. $35

"Praying for Rain." 6x8 and 4x6 photos with 12x16 mat. $60

“Praying for Rain.” 6×8 and 4×6 photos with 12×16 white mat. $60

"Lunch Break." 5x7 photo with 8x10 mat. $40

“Lunch Break.” 5×7 photo with 8×10 white mat. $40

"Chemical Fertilizer." 4x4, 5x7, 5x7, & 5x7 photos with 16x20 mat. $75

“Chemical Fertilizer.” 4×4, 5×7, 5×7, & 5×7 photos with 16×20 white mat. $75

"Grinding Jowar." 4x6 & 6x8 photos with 11x14 mat. $60

“Grinding Jowar.” 4×6 & 6×8 photos with 11×14 white mat. $60

"Preparing for Pola - The Festival of the Bulls." 5x5 & 6x8 photos with 12x16 mat. $65

“Preparing for Pola – The Festival of the Bulls.” 5×5 & 6×8 photos with 12×16 white mat. $65

Top: "Dressing up for Pola - Festival of the Bulls." 4 5x7 photos with 16x20 mat. $70Bottom: "Festival of the Bulls - Village Square." 11x14 photo with 16x20 mat. $65

Top: “Dressing up for Pola – Festival of the Bulls.” 4 5×7 photos with 16×20 white mat. $70
Bottom: “Festival of the Bulls – Village Square.” 11×14 photo with 16×20 white mat. $65

Not pictured: “Bollgard Toy Car.” 4×6 and 6×8 on 11×14 white mat. $60

6x8 in "Bollgard Toy Car"

6×8 in “Bollgard Toy Car”

4x6 in "Bollgard Toy Car"

4×6 in “Bollgard Toy Car”

Not pictured: “Making Papad.” 5×7, 4×6, 4×4, & 5×7 photos on 16×20 white mat. $70

5x7, "Making Papad"

5×7, “Making Papad”

4x6, "Making Papad"

4×6, “Making Papad”

4x4, "Making Papad"

4×4, “Making Papad”

5x7, "Making Papad"

5×7, “Making Papad”

Not pictured: “Pola dye.” 11×14 photo on 16×20 white mat.

Ropes were dyed, houses re-painted. This little boy decided he wanted his hands to match the color of his shirt.

“Pola dye.” 11×14 photo on 16×20 white mat. $90

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A big THANK YOU to my family for helping me pull this off! My little sister #1 is really the photographer in the family. Her opinion was crucial in narrowing down my pictures to this final selection. She gave me feedback every step of the way and I couldn’t have done this without her. And thanks to her, I have photos of the event! A HUGE thank you to my mom and dad, the crafter and the Mathematician in the family, who helped me to custom cut all of the mats with multiple photos in them. It actually took 3 pairs of hands sometimes. And a big thanks to little brother #1, the techie in the family. He picked up the projector for the film, set it up, connected the sound, and then returned it after the event. And little brother #2, the athlete in the family, did lots of heavy lifting, helping me to transport all of the frames to the Studio. And little sister #2, thanks for helping all of my guests find the popcorn! ;)

I’m so lucky to have such a talented family on which I can depend!

And of course, thanks again to the Left Bank Dance Studio for offering me its walls and giving me the opportunity to share this work in another small but extraordinarily gratifying way.

Above all, I want to thank the villagers of Mulgavan for opening their homes to a stranger from a foreign land and for humoring me as I stumbled through learning Marathi and kicked off my flip flops to traipse along with them through muddy fields. धन्यवाद!

Two Options

The story of an environmental activist (Dr. Vandana Shiva) and a farmer (Bija Devi) and their fight to preserve heirloom seeds in India amidst great opposition.
Created by: theperennialplate.com
In Partnership with Intrepid Travel: intrepidtravel.com/food/
For more information visit: navdanya.org/
Filmed & edited by:
Daniel Klein ( twitter.com/perennialplate/ )
Mirra Fine ( twitter.com/kaleandcola/)
Music by: The Orange Mighty Trio: orangemightytrio.com/
Filmed on 5d Mark iii w Canon 24-70, 70-200 2.8 L

Why India?

When I tell people that I am going to live in India for a year responses range from “Wow! How exciting” to “Dirty, poor, over-populated India? Why?” Because…

As I mentioned in my previous post “The Backstory…” I studied abroad on a program called “Rethinking Globalization: Nature, Culture, Justice” (now called “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture, and Justice”). One of the things I most appreciated about my experience abroad was how I was encouraged to examine how I was a part of processes that seemed so far removed from my day-to-day life in the United States. As a western consumer, I am privileged to have grown up with countless luxuries. I was conditioned to value these products based on the dollar amount on their price tag. I had never considered where the ingredients in my toothpaste came from or how they had ended up mixed together and bottled up in my little tube…until I was in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania.

Carrageenan is a gelling and thickening agent used in everything from toothpaste to ice cream. In Tanzania I learned that carrageenan is extracted from seaweed. I met several women who spent most of their days bent over harvesting seaweed. They sold it to multinational corporations, earning a mere 20 cents per pound of dried seaweed.

So why India? Well, I had a similar realization about my consumer habits while I was on a farm in Wardha, located in Maharashtra, India.

Cotton. My t-shirt tag read “100% cotton.” We’ve all heard the Cotton inc. jingle “the fabric of our lives.” And I learned all about it when I studied slavery and the civil war in fifth grade. But in Wardha I sat under a white canopy and looked up at Kishore Tiwari, our guest lecturer for the morning. He wore an angry look on his face and he spoke with sweat pooling between his eyebrows. His voice shook with emotion. He spoke to us about the detrimental effect that U.S. farm subsidies had on Indian cotton farmers who struggled to compete in the global market. He even blamed us, American consumers, for the suicides of thousands of cotton farmers throughout India. “We look at you as ambassadors to the people to convey that mass genocide is going on,” Tiwari pleaded.

I was embarrassed and felt a mix of guilt and defensiveness. This was the first I was hearing of cotton farmer suicides yet I had been wearing cotton my whole life. India is the world’s third largest producer of cotton…I had to have worn cotton from India before. Was it cotton grown by a farmer who later, out of desperation, took his life?

The day after Tiwari’s lecture, my classmates and I went into the fields and had the opportunity to speak with cotton farmers in Wardha. Prior to our field trip we had read several articles examining the effects of Bt cotton, a genetically modified cotton plant originally created by Monsanto and introduced in India in the late 1990s. The articles and Tiwari’s lecture led me to believe that the cotton farmers we were going to talk with would express a discontent with Bt cotton and its high production cost. Surprisingly, the first farmer that I spoke with praised Bt cotton, even though he had not seen an increase in productivity or profit, as was promised by Monsanto’s advertising. The contradiction that lies at the kernel of this encounter is the question that has led me to return to India: Why do farmers promote the modernization of agriculture when it does not always serve their interests?

Speaking to cotton farmers in their fields and to my program coordinators over rice and dahl, I began to see the thin wisps of a vast web of exploitation that ran from the fields in India through a host of actors and institutions and clung tenaciously to my clothing. These fine strands were invisible to me. A whole industry was dedicated to keeping me from seeing them. Nearly a year later I took the stories I had heard in the cotton fields in India and tried to reconcile them with mountains of articles and reports on cotton, agriculture, and trade. The web is tangled. This is no accident. This is why it is so important to trace the strands, to pull on the threads and see what is sitting at the center of the web.

With population increasing and the limits of our natural resources becoming more apparent every day, the pressure is rising for farmers to produce more of our most basic needs in an efficient and sustainable way. New technologies like genetically modified seeds have been developed to aid farmers in this task. Farmers all over the world have altered their agricultural practices to incorporate these new technologies.

There is great debate among scholars, politicians, economists, agronomists, and ecologists as to whether or not these technological changes in agriculture have led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. But what do the farmers think? As people who are daily informed by this agricultural discourse in various ways, it is imperative that farmers’ perspectives be included and considered in the debate.

So I am going back to India. After spending 3 months in a language immersion program in Pune, I will begin my research project. This will take me back to Wardha, back to the cotton fields. Over the course of about 6-9 months I will speak with farmers and ask them what they think about Bt cotton and Monsanto. I will find out if they feel like the advances in agriculture have truly led to higher yield, stronger ecosystems, and better lifestyles. And I’ll let you guys know what I find out…