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 ;)

 

MoMA inspiration

I spent my last full day in New York visiting the Museum of Modern Art. What a great way to lead up to my departure and beginning this project. I was especially inspired by the exhibit Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960-1980. Artists use subtle and not-so-subtle visual alterations to tell stories. 

  
 In his piece “Memorial,” Luis Camnitzer digitally altered a telephone book to insert names of those who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Uruguay. At first glance, it seems to just be a telephone book. What does it mean, to have the names of those who disappeared between 1973-1985 inserted alongside other names that were originally in the telephone book? Is this a way of remembering them? Or forgetting them again? 

  

Mangelos (Dimitrije Bašicevic) | Manifest de la relation | 1976. What statement does a washed out globe with text on it make? What does global communication look like? How can words cross boundaries like countries? 

 

In her piece “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart,” Kara Walker uses 18th century cut-paper silhouette. She transforms this traditional art form into one that tells a story that is more often than not ignored due to the uncomfortable process of acknowledging stereotypes, old and new, and the stories of marginalized and oppressed groups of people. 

  
The placement of pop-culture images makes bold statements. When I saw Love by Marisol, I immediately began to think about themes of addiction, love vs. lust, what is the connection between a blow job and Coca Cola, desire, control…all because of the placement of a coke bottle and the title of her work.

 
Doris Salcedo’s piece, Atrabilious, really stood out to me. ‘Atrabiliarios (Atrabilious) was conceived in response to testimony the artist gathered from relatives and loved ones of those who disappeared during the Colombian Civil War, an armed conflict that began in the 1960s. Worn female shoes in sealed niches are stand-ins for the missing bodies and evoke reliquaries for the remains of saints. “I believe that the major possibilities of art are not in showing the spectacle of violence but instead in hiding it,” the artist has said. “It is the proximity, the latency of violence that interests me.”‘ The symbolic representation of missing people was striking. 

I left the MoMA wondering

  • What kinds of ideas, feelings, issues, stories will the farmers of Mulgavan and I feel inspired to speak about through the art that we will create?
  • How can we use symbols, color, texture, scale, to tell these stories?
  • Can we play with traditional art forms, like block printing, and co-opt them to tell the untold stories, like Kara Walker did in “Gone”?

I suppose we’ll find answers to these questions over the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

Project Progress

Hello friends. Today has been a wonderfully productive day for my project preparation.

Part of my preparation process is looking to other artists and projects for inspiration and ideas. I’ve been exploring the Craft in America videos and stumbled across this one featuring several textile artists. The piece “Portrait of a Textile Worker” by artist Terese Agnew, really stood out to me. I love the way Terese worked with so many people to collect the clothing tags that she used to piece together this portrait of a woman who works in a textile factory in Nicaragua. The textile itself is intricate and beautiful and the story behind it and the material used is so thoughtfully crafted, perfectly symbolic of labor issues and human connection or lack thereof. The segment on “Portrait of a Textile Worker” begins around 46:25 in the video below. I encourage you to check it out!

I am also making progress with my Indiegogo campaign! As of today I am 40% funded. I have 8 days left to raise the remaining $3,300. If you can make a contribution, please head over to my page and do so!

Returning to India!

Every 30 minutes, a farmer in India, overwhelmed with debt, takes his or her life. Since 1995, over 250,000 farmer suicides have been recorded. Most of these farmers grow cotton.

In 2011 I received a Fulbright grant to study cotton farming in Maharashtra, India. A myriad of social, economic, and environmental factors contribute to this epidemic. In an effort to shed more light on this tragedy and better understand the context in which it is taking place, I spent 7 months in Mulgavan, a village in central India that is primarily comprised of small-scale cotton farmers living below the poverty line. My research culminated with two projects: a body of photographs and essays documenting cotton farmers’ experiences, and a narrative of a widow of a cotton farmer which was included in the Voice of Witness book Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy. Through both of these projects I went beyond statistics and considered the complexity and humanity of cotton farmers and their families in hopes of narrowing the gap between consumers of cotton and cotton farmers.

75percentCottonIn October I will return to India to embark on a collaborative art project with the farmers that I worked with in 2011-2012. Since moving back to St. Louis in 2013 I’ve been envisioning a series of art pieces that play with products of cotton that we use daily (q-tips, tampons, t-shirts, bed sheets, dollar bills, cotton balls, etc) to represent the struggles of Indian cotton farmers and the overwhelming number of farmer suicides. Hearing the statistics is one thing. Experiencing the scale of the issue is another.

I want to create a body of work that encourages viewers to consider their roles as consumers and passive participants in the systems and structures that perpetuate these human rights violations. I want to draw connections between social justice issues in St. Louis and the human rights issues of cotton farming in India. The history of cotton in the U.S. is rooted in slavery and capitalism. With each passing day it becomes clearer that this history has had a long lasting effect that we haven’t fully dealt with. This project will explore ways in which the struggles of cotton farmers in India relate to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.

I received an Artist Support Grant from the Regional Arts Commission to cover the majority of the costs of this project (like travel expenses, paying other project contributors, etc). On Sunday, July 26 I will present my project at Sloup, a monthly soup dinner that crowdfunds arts & community impact projects in St. Louis, MO. I’ll also be launching an online crowdfunding campaign in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned for project updates and ways you can support me as I embark on this next chapter of my journey!

back in the game!

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.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

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.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

artwork by William Burton Jr.

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!

-Aaron

The worry is all the time

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 on the left and Laxmibai in the yellow saree

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.  

April 25, 2012

This is an unfinished, rough version of my thoughts on yesterday’s visit to Wardha to speak with Mr. Atul Sharma. Radhika is my unsuspecting translator/intern…well, she might be suspecting now. Yesterday was our first of many adventures to be had over the next ten weeks. Today we head to SRUJAN’s farm. Saturday morning, back to Mulgavan. And the work begins!!! After a long spell in Nagpur, attending wedding festivities (photos available here) and avoiding the heat, I’m ready to get out and get going! I figured I’d post this, despite it’s unfinished status. It’ll give y’all something to chew on while I add to the list of things I’m learning and adventures I’m having. See you when I get back!

***

It’s a short walk from our house to the bus stop, past meandering cows and children on bikes three times their size. Radhika and I arrive at what we think is the bus stand and when Radhika looks at me with questioning eyes I shrug and suggest that she ask uh, that man there. She shyly inquires if this is the place where we should wait for a bus to Wardha. As she turns to me to explain that the man said we can just wait at that bench there, a bus pulls up. People board it hastily. It starts to drive off and I flag it down quickly. Radhika yells up, “Wardha?” I’m glad she is with me. If I had asked “Wardha” with my foreign accent, they probably wouldn’t have understood me, which would have made the less than one minute interaction of asking and boarding the bus much more awkward. But they understand what Radhika said. The conductor gives us a quick nod and we step up onto the bus. I pull the door shut behind me as the bus begins to move back into the stream of traffic.

Standing room only. And the aisle of the bus is already full. I stand at the top of the steps, holding onto a railing on my right and a railing on my left. We sway back and forth as the bus moves bulkily with the traffic. A few minutes go by. Maybe fifteen. The bus stops. Men grab their bags and make their way towards the door. We crane our necks to see if all of the recently vacated seats have already been claimed. Pushing our way to the middle of the bus we discover that they have indeed been filled.

Radhika reaches above and pulls two leather hand holds towards us. I slip my fingers through the loop and rest my right hand on the seat next to me to steady myself as we jolt forward with each sudden brake and swerve. The left side of the bus drops suddenly off the rough edge of the road. With the right side on the pavement and the left in the dirt we lurch forward as car by car, truck by truck, people leaving Nagpur stop and pay the toll.

As I stand, constantly re-steadying myself, my gaze drifts over the heads of black hair all around me and falls upon glints of bangles on women’s wrists. I remember how surprisingly difficult and painful it was to force my hand to contract in a way that enabled me to squeeze glossy rings of glass over my knuckles and onto my thin wrists, discovering that my right hand is noticeably bigger than my left. My fingers begin to tingle as the tight grip of the leather loop puts them to sleep. I readjust and turn towards a mother and her two daughters. One of the daughters, probably no older than five, meticulously nibbles on Parle G biscuits. When she gets to the last corner of each biscuit she sucks on it till its soggy bits dissolve on the back of her tongue.

We stand for about an hour until a man with a duffle bag looks at us and says, “There are two seats.” He slides past us with his bag and we sit down, finally. I sit in the last row, six of us in the five seat space. We’re launched wildly into the air with every dramatic bump. My butt literally leaves the seat. I want to relax. I know, relax? Yep. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I’m about to relax in the back of a bumpy bus. But I can’t relax; I know that our stop is coming up and I have only been here once before. I watch the scenery intently, waiting for the bus to make a left turn. I remember that I have to get off at a left turn.

We make the transition from surprisingly cushy bus seats to a ramshackle rickshaw with not surprisingly uncomfortable seats. They’re upholstered with a white crocodile pleather that can hardly be classified as white. The ceiling is a ripped, shredded collage of orange tarp and the engine roars loudly. I think, if I had my recorder with me right now, no one would believe this monstrous noise is coming from this tiny rickshaw.

We arrive at Polytechnic and ask for Mr. Sharma’s office. He hasn’t arrived yet but is on his way and has told us to wait for him in his office. A peon turns on the ceiling fan and hands us two glasses of water. There are several desks in the office and I scan the cluttered one in front of us for a clue as to who it belongs to. It’s covered in papers that are being weighted down by various objects so as not to blow away with the breeze of the fan. Gandhi’s Diary 2011. My Village…My Place of Pilgrimage by Anna Hazare. An actual paperweight–one with yellow ribbons of glass waving through its center. A bell. A hole punch. There is no conclusive evidence naming the desk’s owner. I look around the office. A few co-workers arrive and Radhika explains who we are and what we’re doing. I notice some motivational posters tacked up around the room. “No one can do everything but everyone can do something” And, next to a close up of hands molding clay on a potter’s wheel, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Mr. Sharma arrives. The agricultural entimologist moves softly towards the desk in front of us, his desk. His graying hair is parted on the left and neatly combed across his head. His salt and pepper mustache moves up and down as he quietly converses with his colleagues. He’s been out of the office due to an illness and spends the first few minutes checking in with everyone. As he settles into his chair, he smiles, folds his hands, and gently peers at me with weary eyes through his thick-lensed round-framed glasses. I notice that his peach dress shirt is frayed along the collar, a sign that perhaps Sharma doesn’t just study Gandhi’s philosophies as his 2011 diary would indicate, but also practices them.

After introducing myself and Radhika, I explain to him that I know very little about the work that he does–only that it is related to cotton and therefore related to my upcoming work. He tells me that for the last fifteen years or so he’s been collaborating with researchers at the Central Institute of Cotton Research and analyzing pests on cotton fields in the districts of Wardha and Yavatmal. The premise of the program is simple. His team advances their research while at the same time helping farmers gain better knowledge of the ecosystems and the natural environment in which they farm. As the saying goes, feed a man a fish and he’s fed for a day. Teach a man to fish and he can feed himself forever.

Sharma emphasizes that his program is a non-material input program. Unlike many other research institutes or Universities that hand out new seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides, to farmers who participate in their research program, Sharma’s team bestows knowledge. They work with 20-30 new farmers every year, spending time on their land and teaching them how to identify bugs and whether or not they are harmless, beneficial, or pests that require some type of intervention for the health of the farmer’s crop.

Seventy per cent of the farmers he’s worked with spray chemical pesticides out of fear. They don’t know the difference between a pest and a bug that might be beneficial by say, eating the larvae of a pest. Better safe then sorry, they feel. But Dr. Sharma tells me that it isn’t actually safer. Heavy spraying of pesticides takes its toll on the health of those spraying the chemicals, the soil being soaked with the chemicals, the bugs that are necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem, and the pests that eventually develop resistance to the chemicals that are meant to destroy them. “Insects have been around for 20 million years. They are pretty evolved,” Sharma tells me. “We need to understand our limits and try to benefit from controls available within nature. Chemicals should be a last resort.”

“They call the pesticide ‘medicine.’ But it’s not medicine,” Sharma says. “It’s poison.” They should be cautious with it, in selecting it and in using it. But farmers are generally not advised by the likes of Mr. Sharma and his team. Usually they make their decisions based on what shop keepers and chemical companies tell them. These farmers have become absorbed in a free market system. If a seed doesn’t preform well, just discard it. Buy a new version the next year. The shop keeper will tell him what kind. And when a seed seller helps with that decision, other interests come into play.

“I’m not against chemical pesticides,” Sharma assures me. “It can’t be like a pendulum. We can’t just get rid of chemicals completely.” Like when you are really sick, he says, you will take an antibiotic. But only if necessary. And only when your doctor prescribes it. And just like we go to doctors for a prescription, farmers should have someone guiding them when it comes to the health of their crops and their land. Asking advice from the shop keeper who sells the chemical pesticide and the genetically modified seed is like going straight to a pharmaceutical drug company and asking them what drug you should take for your illness. Of course they are going suggest their own name-brand expensive version of the drug.

The technology isn’t bad, he says, it’s the way its being marketed that’s the problem. Which is why technological awareness is most important, why knowledge-based programs can really benefit farmers. They need to have agency when they make a decision. They need to be able to decide what is best for their land and best for their family’s health and financial security. And they shouldn’t be making these decisions on their own. Collaboration is key.

I ask Mr. Sharma if he’s ever come across farmers collaborating with each other to determine the best practices for farming in their village. He says at most, collaboration takes the form of a passing remark. How is your crop this year? Good, bad, etc. It’s not like back in the day before TV, when farmers used to sit together in the evening and discuss their fields, sharing their knowledge, creating a collective wisdom.

“Farming cannot be an individual business,” Sharma tells me, looking up from the glass paperweight that he’s been fidgeting with. “It is a collective effort which is going to benefit. Not an individual activity.” I ask why and he gives me an example that highlights the importance of all farmers harvesting and clearing their land at the same time. If one farmer leaves the stalks of his cotton crop up until the beginning of the next season, he creates a haven for pests. And if the pests are there, waiting for the crop, it won’t matter if the farmer plants Bt cotton or conventional cotton. He’ll be forced to spray toxic pesticides. And, chances are, his neighboring farmers will also have to spray for these pests.

Sharma believes that educational programs like the one at Wardha Polytechnic are essential. With a little bit of information, a farmer can forgo spraying intense amounts of pesticide, saving himself some money and helping his land remain healthy by avoiding unnecessary doses of toxic chemicals.

But even a non-material input program has limitations. Sharma’s team moves to new villages and works with new farmers every year because they want to help as many farmers as possible. But identifying pests and stages of pests is difficult especially when you are working within a living system and there’s no guaranteed that you’ll be dealing with the same insects every year. Last year a few farmers expressed interest in continuing to work with Polytechnic. They even offered to pay for the service. Sharma couldn’t commit to working with only 4 or 5 farmers, so he decided to see how many farmers might be interested. He agreed to allow the small group of farmers to see how many farmers would be interested in this program. They settled on a meager cost of 20 rupees per farmer for consulting with Polytechnic. A few weeks later the farmers turned up with 37,000 rupees. That’s 1,850 farmers agreeing to pay a fee so that they can work with Polytechnic to learn more about their land. The demand is there.

Government support needs to be there too. Sharma’s small team can’t help every farmer in Vidarbha. It’s going to be hard to manage to help the 1800 that have asked them for follow up support in addition to the new farmers that they work with this year.

Sorry for the abrupt ending. I’m literally rushing out the door to start the journey to Pandharkawada. When I get back, I’ll be sure to add my concluding thoughts. Till then you can mull over these unpolished ones. Catch ya later!

Meet Mulgavhan

[February 28, 2012]

Sangita and I drive along the inconsistent stretch of road that lies between Mulgavhan and Mangurda. My hair whips in front of my eyes. As I brush it back I think about how some of my family members probably won’t be too thrilled to learn that I’ve been roving around the Zuri-Jamni district on the back of Sangita’s scooter, sans helmet. I think, Sangita has yet to exceed 40 kilometers per hour. Shrugging, thoughts of helmets disappear as we breeze past fields of wheat, jowari, toor, cotton.

Fields bordering Mulgavan

Today I head back to Mangurda, a small town near Pandharkwada in the Yavatmal District. I first came to this area in 2007 on a study abroad program. Ajay and Yogini Dolke, the husband and wife duo that founded and run the non-profit SRUJAN (Society for Rural and Urban Joint Activities, Nagpur), were a pair of many local coordinators that I met on my trip. It was then that I first learned about cotton farmer suicides and the complexities that people in this community face thanks to the path that agricultural development has taken in India since it gained independence in 1947.

And now, four years later, I’ve come back to write about the lives of cotton farmers. Vidarbha is comprised of 6 districts, one of them Yavatmal (one of India’s 100 poorest districts). Though farmers all across India commit suicide due to the massive amounts of debt that they acquire, it is here in Vidarbha where the rates are highest.

With the help of my friends at SRUJAN, I’ve found a family to live with while I do my research.

Sangita Atram and her family live in Mulgavhan, a village of maybe 1,000 people.

It’s in the Zuri-Jamni block of Yavatmal, one of the poorest blocks in the district. There is a word in Marathi that is used to describe this block of Yavatmal district. Uhsoowidha: lack of infrastructure, inconvenience. Most of the government officials and development officers that I have met so far use a different word. Backward. The term sounds harsh and condescending to me, like leftover jargon from the British Raj.

But I think I’m beginning to understand what is meant by “backward.” Of the 117 schools in this block, only 41 of them go past the 4th standard and all the way up to the 7th standard. Few families send their children away to neighboring villages after their children finish the 4th standard, and even fewer send them to secondary school. Post offices, hospitals, banks, are all few and far between as far as I can tell. The roads are rough and inconsistent in quality. Some are even and recently paved. Most are worn with unfinished seams, their edges roughly dropping several inches off into the dust and rocks that border them. Even the smooth running roads have their pothole ridden patches and occasionally the dirt road detour. But navigating the roads on a scooter is manageable and Sangita is a good driver.

I spent the last week in Mulgavhan, getting to know Sangita and her family and preparing myself for the next 6 months.

 In just a few weeks I’ll be moving to Mulgavhan. Sangita’s husband Motiram and his father, Abhiman, are both farmers and cotton is one of the crops that they cultivate. What better way to understand the life of a cotton farmer than to live with one? How can I understand what the introduction of the latest genetically modified seed or a well for irrigation funded by a government scheme means for a farmer without understanding his and his family’s lifestyle?

***

Mulgavhan. Let me save you the time of looking it up on Google maps; it’s a town so small that it doesn’t make the cut. [That’s where wikimapia.org comes in handy].

My wanderings around town this past week have revealed that there isn’t much here in the way of infrastructure… a school on the right as you enter town, a few small shops where kids buy cold juice and men buy chewing tobacco, the gram panchayat building (local government), and lots of cows and houses.

Despite it’s small size and seeming simplicity, it took me most of the week to mentally map everything out. And judging Mulgavhan by its infrastructure will certainly teach me things, but it is limited in scope.

It’s really hard to know where to start when describing my introduction to village life. I suppose that I just have to get comfortable knowing that while noteworthy things are happening to me everyday, I’ll only get to share a few with you. And which ones do I choose? Do I tell you about the time that I attended a women’s village health worker training and was given a makeover so that I looked like a proper Indian woman?

Do I write about playing “Ushta Chuwa,” a game kind of like “Sorry”? Should I tell you about the numerous TV shows I’m becoming familiar with or how I brush my teeth out on the road in front of our house? Do you want to know about what I eat, where I sleep, if I shower (I do—hot bucket shower every morning so far)?

For now I suppose I’ll stick to the stories that relate directly to cotton farming and my project and then maybe throw in some more general observations and musings.

***

All eyes are on me at all times. Or so it feels. I’ve never experienced being the “other” in such a stark way before. I’m not used to doing almost everything (with the exception of using the squatty potty and showering) in public. Personal space has a very different meaning here. People know that I brush my teeth twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. They see me pluck my eyebrows. They notice that my ears aren’t pierced but my nose is and then ask me why.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions that I am unsure how to answer. “What do people eat in America?” and “What do people wear in America?” are common ones. It’s extremely hard to simplify and generalize life in America or even life in small-town Illinois. How do I explain the vast amount of variety and choice we have on a daily basis? In Mulgavhan everyone eats rice, chapati, daal, and some kind of vegetable, usually cauliflower or eggplant. So trying to explain that sometimes I eat pizza, sometimes rice and vegetables, sometimes soup, sometimes salad, sometimes enchiladas (or what an enchilada is), is difficult. Women ask me if I wear my salwar kameez at home. When I say no they ask what I wear instead. Unlike when I ask them what they wear, there is not one straightforward answer that I can give them. Most of the time I just smile and say that America is a very diverse country with people from many cultures and with many different ideas and traditions. We eat lots of different things. We wear lots of different things.

***

As an introvert, it can be exhausting and frustrating to be the center of attention so much. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’m here to observe and so I must be willing to be observed. It’s only fair. I could easily just do day trips to the village a few times a week and avoid a lot of the attention-drawing moments. But I would miss so much.

Is it totally necessary for me to awkwardly sit in front of the entire school, unsure of why I’ve been invited to this “meeting,” not knowing what I should say? Is meeting the local magistrate really an important part of my research? It certainly wasn’t something that I was planning on doing. But now I know that most of the cases that the magistrate sees are agricultural disputes. It’s the unplanned moments that I stumble upon that teach me the most.

For instance, I went out for a walk on Wednesday morning. Planning on mapping out the village a bit, I brought my notebook. Of course I was only able to work for a few minutes before I was beckoned over to a group of women and children. “Ya, ya.” “Come. Come.” One of the women, Archana, asked me if I have a camera. I told her it was at Sangita’s house. She told me to get it and come back to her house. A few minutes later, camera in hand, I walked up to Archana’s house.

We took some pictures of her family and a few of the kids who were about to go to school. It was time for school. As the kids left I sipped some tea that Archana’s mother had made for me. I learned that Archana, her brother, and her mother lived together in this house. I’m not sure where their father is. Right now my observations are really limited by the small amount of Marathi that I understand. I’m sure that I will be piecing things together for months to come. As I sat there talking with Archana, a man on a motorcycle sped by. Her brother yelled something at him and he slowed down and drove down to their house. Archana’s brother went inside and grabbed a sack of cotton. The man took out a scale and hung it from the roof of the porch. The cotton weighed 5 kilos. He paid them 34 rupees, loaded the cotton on his bike, and drove off.

I’m not sure if that was just an initial payment (just one example of how my language skills are limiting. I’ll be able to do follow up research with a translator soon though). Maybe this motorcycle man is going to come back and pay Archana’s family after he sells the cotton on the market. Maybe he has already loaned them some money so he didn’t pay them the full price. I hope that’s the case. I’ve heard about middlemen who buy cotton for disgustingly low prices and then sell it for higher prices, making a pretty decent profit at the expense of small scale farmers who don’t have the means to take their cotton to sell in larger towns like Pandharkwada where the ginning factories are. The Government of India’s minimum support price for medium to long staple cotton is Rs 3,300 per quintal. There are 100 kilos in a quintal. So Archana and her family should have received 33 rupees per kilo. Of course they have to pay the middleman something for transporting their cotton, but I doubt he should be earning 4/5 of what that cotton was worth. A local college student has agreed to spend her summer helping me translate and communicate. When Radhika is with me I’ll be sure to find out what the situation was.

It’s instances like this one, unplanned experiences, that make living in Mulgavhan worthwhile. It’s impossible to predict these events and schedule them into my research. I figure if I am living in Mulgavhan and I’m lucky, I’ll stumble across them while having tea at a new friend’s house.