This past April and May, I participated in a Group-Centered Leadership mini artist residency with the Yeyo Arts Collective in St. Louis. Throughout the residency, each participant worked on envisioning an art project, going through the process of creating an elevator pitch, working out a budget, and coming up with a plan to see the project through. It was an incredible experience to work with local artists who were starting the process of honoring their identities as artists by working to bring their dream projects to life. Each artist’s project was a reflection of a central truth of theirs.
Like with most things, I applied to the residency based on a gut feeling, knowing that it would be a rewarding and enriching experience. I did not, at that time, have a project really planned out. But for the purpose of applying to the residency, I created one. Well, I committed to finally taking seriously an idea that I’ve been mulling over for some time.
Ever since returning from India and moving to St. Louis, I’ve wanted to create art that
- reveals the struggles that cotton farmers in India face daily
- connects their struggles to consumers in the United States by highlighting all of the cotton we consume daily, and
- connects Indian cotton farmers’ struggles to Monsanto, a locally based multi-national corporation that sells cotton seeds to farmers in India and funds really worthwhile art, education, and community programs in St. Louis.
For a myriad of reasons, I’ve never moved past the brainstorm/envisioning stage of this. And I’m glad I was stuck there for a long time, because over the last few months I’ve realized that there is a whole new dimension to the project that I want to highlight.
Many of you know that I’ve been involved in the activist community in St. Louis since moving back to the city in 2013. And since last August, when Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, that my involvement has centered around issues of race and inequality. Rampant racial disparities in St. Louis were one of the main reasons why I was compelled to work on food justice issues in St. Louis. Mike Brown’s death re-centered race issues in my work. I participated in the YWCA’s book club “Witnessing Whiteness.” I found a group of creative thinkers to plug into actions with – helping to create and enact #chalkedunarmed, the symphony action, FoodSpark potlucks centered around discussing race and privilege, and various banners and art used in protests spanning from August to today.
In February we hosted two FoodSparks, one in Ferguson and one in Shaw. These FoodSparks focused on creating a space for protestors and activists to creatively process the last 6 months in St. Louis and Ferguson and collectively envision the next 6 months. Participants added thoughts and artwork to placemats at each potluck, as well as to a blank storywall that was added to a collection of storywalls created in August in response to the things our communities were experiencing in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death. We collected these works and exhibited them at the Atelier D’artiste 14 Community Gallery in Old North, St. Louis.
When I walked into the gallery to meet with William Burton, Jr., one of the gallery owners, I immediately noticed a vase with cotton. As I took in the artwork on the walls, I saw cotton, cotton, cotton. I began to realize that cotton has an incredibly important history here in the United States. The history of slavery and racial oppression in the United States is bound up in the economy of cotton. I began to think about how capitalism and today’s economy enslave small-scale cotton farmers in India and what the threads connecting these seemingly separate social justice issues are.
As I got into my residency with Yeyo, I began to envision ways to visually draw these connections and create a critique of the racist and oppressive nature of capitalism that could span centuries and continents. It was around this time that I received an email from JetAirways alerting me of a one-weekend only deal on flights from Newark to Mumbai. The deal was too good to pass up. So I bought a ticket and began planning a return trip to India for October-November 2015.
This catapulted my project into the beginning stages of action!
I applied for (and received!) an Artist Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission (RAC). Leading up to leaving for India in October I will exhibit photographs from my work in India in 2011-2012 at the Yeyo Arts Collective Gallery (2907 S. Jeffereson Ave). “cotton: the fiber of our being” will be up in the gallery from July 3 – July 31. On Monday, July 13, I will screen the film Bitter Seeds, a documentary about growing cotton in India. Bitter Seeds was filmed in Vidarbha, the region where I lived and did my research in 2011-2012. We’ll screen the film and I’ll speak briefly about my experience in India and field questions related to the film and cotton farming. On Friday, July 24, I will lead an oral history workshop at Yeyo.
Although I received a generous grant from RAC, I need to raise more money to cover additional costs. I will be presenting at Sloup, a local monthly crowd-funding event in St. Louis, on July 26. And in August I will launch an online crowd-funding campaign to raise the remaining funding necessary for me to complete this project on the scale that I’m envisioning it!
Stay tuned for blog updates for all of the events I will be facilitating this July, as well as information regarding the fundraising (I’ll need your help, i.e. donations and spreading the word!), and project updates.
It’s good to be back!
The monsoon is the season of new.
New plants that glow the greenest green I’ve ever set eyes on
New clothes and books for school
New farming tools & new bells for the bulls
New tarps for roofs
New varieties of genetically modified seeds.
Birds chirp and the breeze seems to have slowed down thanks to the heaviness of the humidity. It hasn’t rained for four days. I think of the seedlings sprouting on the farms surrounding Mulgavan. Are their new roots able to reach out and soak up enough moisture in the soil around them? I hope so. I don’t want to experience the disappointment of crop failure. I don’t want to watch as farmers borrow even more money in order to buy a second round of seeds. I don’t think I need to worry much. But I do.
I’m beginning to understand what Ganpat Shedamake told me a few days ago. “The worry is all the time. Till you sow the seeds. Then you’re a little relieved. Then until the bud forms we are a little worried. Then after that, we are happy.”
Ganpat Shedamake and his wife Laxmibai live in a small two-room house. Its walls are made of sticks and branches that are woven together in two layers. These layers are then filled in and covered with a mixture of cow dung, mud, and a very fine lime powder. It’s a mixture that slowly breaks down over time; each year a new layer is smeared over the old layer to fortify both the inside and outside of the house. This is done before the monsoon beats and batters these houses with wind and rain.
I sit on the earthen floor by the open doorway. I need the light from outside in order to take notes; the electricity has been out since Wednesday night when the monsoon announced its definite arrival with the coming of the season’s second rain, accompanied by very heavy winds. As I ask Laxmibai and Ganpat Shedamake questions I notice shafts of light streaming through gaps in the tiles that are arranged above the branches that make the frame of their roof. I ask how their house held up during the storm on Wednesday. The rain had come through into their house there in the main room. I don’t know where they huddled to stay dry; the small kitchen seemed to have just as many lines of light peaking in through broken or poorly arranged tiles. It had rained the whole night.
Laxmibai and Ganpat have 5 acres of land that the government gave them under the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling on Holdings) Act, 1961. “We got it a long time ago. Before we had children,” Ganpat says. Now their 2 daughters are married and have children of their own now. Ganpat and Laxmibai are the only people working the land, their main source of income that is supplemented by collecting and selling leaves used for bidis (locally made small-but-mighty cigarettes–a pack of 25 costs less than 10 rupees). One of their granddaughters, Shital, about 13 years old, lives with them now. She helps as much as she can when she isn’t in school.
“The land is rocky, not good quality,” they tell me, “The yield is not that good. We have to take a little bit of a loan every year.” They grow cotton, tur, and jowar—the three typical crops grown in this region. Cotton is sold and tur and jowar are used at home. Tur is used in daal and a jowar is a grain used in a flat bread. If there is excess tur or jowar, that is sold too.
The Shedamakes haven’t yet bought their seeds. They are waiting for their money from this year’s loan. They borrow money from a group of South Indian moneylenders that come to Mulgavan every year. “We just borrow from them. It’s no use borrowing from other moneylenders. We usually take 5, 6, 7,000 rupees as a loan,” Ganpat tells me. The interest rate on the loans that farmers take from the South Indian moneylenders and most other private moneylenders is 50%. I ask Ganpat if he has ever taken a loan from a bank, a loan that might have a smaller interest rate. “Yes,” he replies, “But I wasn’t able to pay it back. The yield wasn’t good and I couldn’t repay it. Otherwise I’d get a loan from the bank. The first two times I borrowed 5,000 rupees and I repaid the principle balance. The third time I borrowed 7,000 and couldn’t repay it. It’s left. If I had repaid it I could’ve taken a loan for 15,000 rupees.” As I continue to ask questions about the loan from the bank, the principle amount of each loan changes. First it’s 7,000 rupees, then 7,500. Shedamake isn’t sure of the interest rate; he just knows that it is meager. Later, on a follow up visit, Ganpat Shedamake shows me the paperwork from the bank. He borrowed 25,000 from the Central Bank of India, Shibla Branch, in 2005. I’m fairly certain that he was unable to repay the 25,000 and that it is this amount that sits in the bank accruing a meager interest while Shedamake borrows money from private moneylenders in order to finance his farm.
On average, Shedamake plants 2 acres of cotton, with rows of tur interspersed, 1 acre of jowar, and 1 acre of other plants like moong and maize for household consumption. He usually gets a yield of 3-4 quintals of cotton and 4 gunny bags of jowar. That’s if everything goes well. But about half of the time it doesn’t. The Shedamakes are dependent on rainfall for the irrigation of their crops. And the rainfall of the monsoon is erratic. Sometimes it is too much too soon. Sometimes too little too late. And then there is the fact that the Shedamakes cannot afford to pay anyone to help them cultivate their crops. If either one of them is unable to work, the crop suffers. Like last year.
Last year while plowing his field, Ganpat fell on the stick that farmers carry with them while they plow; it’s used it to whack the bulls if necessary. It has a 2 inch metal scraper attached to the bottom of it which the farmers use to scrape off mud that builds up on the plow’s blade. About 1 inch of the metal sliced into his upper thigh. He had to get stitches and was unable to work on the farm for a few months, basically the rest of the season. Laxmibai was left to try to maintain the crop on her own. She wasn’t able to keep up with all of the weeds. Fortunately her sister’s husband helped her harvest the little cotton that had been able to grow. They made just enough money to repay the moneylender.
Shedamake feels pressure to be sure to repay the loan to the moneylender. He can’t buy his seeds without a loan from someone. And if he doesn’t repay the loan one year, the moneylender won’t lend him money the next year. Without a loan from the moneylender how can he buy his seeds? This year he and his wife collected enough betel nut leaves to sell and make 6,000 rupees. With that money they paid for new clothes and this year’s fertilizers. Shedamake explains to me that buying the fertilizers is a priority. The longer you wait, the more expensive they are. The demand for them is great so if you wait too long into the season there might not be enough left. They used all of the money on the fertilizers. He is waiting for the South Indian moneylender to come to town so he can take his loan and go buy seeds.
Later that Friday evening the moneylenders arrive in town. They stand out—their gold watches and gold-framed glasses catching the rare bit of sunlight, bragging of wealth and a life free of worry. I want to talk to them, but think it best to let them settle in before bothering them with questions like “Who are you?” and “How have you come to do business in Mulgavan if you are from Andhra Pradesh?” The next day the family I am staying with sows their seeds. I spend the whole day in the field with them. On Sunday I go to the house where the moneylenders are staying to try to talk with them. There are four of them—two older men and two men who look to be in their thirties. The younger men wear pressed business shirts and slacks. For twenty minutes I stand waiting for a chance to talk with them. I want to explain that I am researching cotton farming and many of the farmers that I have spoken with told me they depend on getting loans from the moneylenders—that they don’t have to produce official documents like they do at the bank, so they are able to get loans. The moneylenders ignore me the whole time, not even offering me a chair or some water (a woman nearby yells over to me at one point, “Aren’t your legs tired? Don’t you want to sit down?” She is, apparently, the only one who has noticed).
A farmer from Tembi, a neighboring village, is waiting to get his loan from the South Indians. He talks with me. When I explain that I want to know about the moneylenders he starts to tell me about them. “They are from Andhra Pradesh. They don’t speak much Marathi. They’ve been coming to this area for the last 15-20 years and doing business in villages all over Zuri-Jamni [the block where Mulgavan is located].” I politely interrupt the farmer and explain that many farmers have already told me this information and that I want to speak with the moneylenders directly. Even though they are all sitting there as I have this conversation with the farmer from Tembi, they claim that they are too busy to speak with me at the moment. “Come back in the evening,” they tell me.
I leave, feeling doubtful that I will get to speak with them. They are here to make money after all and answering questions that could reveal how corrupt their business is definitely won’t make them any money. Even though I told them I didn’t work for the government and I wasn’t a reporter, it didn’t seem like they trusted me. I think they overheard me explain to the farmer from Tembi that my research was being funded by the United States’ government and the Indian government. I go back later that evening to talk with them only to discover that they have skipped town. And they didn’t even say goodbye. Suspicious. I hope I run into them when they come back to collect their money in November!
Thinking that Ganpat Shedamake has probably gotten his loan from the moneylenders before they left town, I return to ask him if he has bought his cotton seeds. “Did you get your loan from the South Indian moneylenders?” I ask Shedamake. “We were in the farm one day that they were here, so we were a little late to ask them for money. When we went to them the money was finished. That’s why they left. We have to see. We have to look for another moneylender.” No loan, no seeds. I am worried—many farmers sowed their cotton seeds about five days earlier. How long will it take Ganpat Shedamake to find a lender, get the money, buy his seeds, and then plant them? How long can he wait until it affects his crop’s yield? So many farmers have told me that timing is essential with farming.
“Where will you go to find a moneylender? How will you do that?” I ask with a hint of worry in my voice. “I’ll go to Pandharkawada. I’ll have to go to the dalal, the person to whom we sell the cotton,” Shedamake explains. “I’ll have to sell my cotton only to him. He’ll take out the loan amount and then give me the rest of the money.” I ask if he buys the cotton for a fair price. Often when farmers don’t get to choose who to sell their cotton to due to situations like Ganpat Shedamake’s they are forced to sell their cotton at a price lower than the market price declared by the government. “He buys the cotton on market price,” Shedamake tells me. “He takes the loan and the interest and gives the rest of the money back to me.” I’m skeptical. The dalal is a middleman. He buys the cotton from Shedamake and other farmers and then sells it at the cotton mills. If he can buy it for a cheaper-than-market price and then sell it to the cotton mills for market price, he walks away with a profit. I suppose we’ll see if Shedamake’s dalal is an honest one when it comes time for Shedamake to sell his cotton at the end of this season.
“I’ll go tomorrow and get the loan. Then sow the seeds,” Shedamake tells me. “How much will you borrow?” I ask. “5,000 rupees. It’s a small amount but it’s enough to buy seeds. We go for daily wages on other people’s farms. That’s how we pay for our household expenses,” he answers. A day’s work on a farm will earn you a wage of 100-150 rupees. That’s about $1.75-$2.75 USD. When I ask what his annual income is Ganpat Shedamake tells me it is between 10 and 15,000 rupees usually. This means that he and his wife live well under the poverty line (below poverty line is referred to as BPL). They both have a BPL card, which means they get a discount on things like bus tickets and rice and wheat. “Other than that,” Shedamake tells me, “we don’t get any help from the government.”
As I’m leaving, I notice the roof has been patched with a tarp. “We got it on Monday. It was 300 rupees for 6 meters,” says Shedamake. “Was that a lot?” I ask. “For poor people it is expensive but there is no other option. You have to buy it,” Shedamake says, shrugging. As I walk back home I think about how Ganpat Shedamake’s answers are never riddled with worry or sorrow. He speaks very matter-of-factly. I think back to one of the first things he told me—“The worry is all the time, till you sow the seeds. Then you’re a little relieved. Then until the bud forms we are a little worried. After that we are happy.” I wonder what this happiness looks like.
Since I first published this post there have been a few developments with the Shedamakes. They were unable to get a loan from the dalal. Instead of searching for someone else to lend him money or begging the dalal and showcasing his vulnerability, Ganpat Shedamake opted to use the rest of his savings from the leaves for bidis in order to purchase one bag of cotton seeds (930 rupees) and one bag of jowar (approximately 375 rupees). They hope that the yield will be enough to pay some of their remaining debt to the moneylender. They will rely on daily wages earned by Laxmibai and Shital (when she doesn’t have school—weekends and holidays). The average wage per day here is 100 rupees.