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!

Supari

She hands me a chunk of betel nut
“Supari,”

I place it in my mouth.
My teeth test its strength.
Rock hard.

My tongue knocks the nut
across the roof of my mouth
down the inside of my cheek.
Saliva washes over its bitter surface,
slowly softening the outer layer
till its skin peels back
and the next hard layer is revealed.

Bitter, long lasting, slow to dissolve.

“Supari.”

***

I left Mulgavan to talk with a widow who has been sharing her story with me for an upcoming book that the non-profit Voice of Witness is putting out. This is the third time I’ve interviewed her and the first time she tells me she wants to die.

Her husband, a cotton farmer, killed himself two years ago. The pressures of his mounting debt were too much for him to handle. He slowly slipped from being a loving father and ideal husband to an irritated and anxious man, increasingly dependent on loans from private moneylenders. Her son, 15, hates to see his mother so sad. He leaves when I come to talk with her.  He doesn’t want to hear about his father.

Six months ago she slipped and broke her hip. A doctor fixed her up with a metal rod and a screw and told her she can’t work for 2 years. She can barely get across her house–the house that her husband took a loan on in 2007 for his farm. Last month the bank officials came to tell her that if she didn’t pay the loan they would force her out of her house and board it up. Left with no other choice, she pleaded her mother to tell her brothers to give her the 3 lakh rupees (about $5,500 USD) that she needed to pay off the loan. Her brothers did not willingly give her the money. And although things are settled now and she doesn’t have to worry about the house, the tension that she feels she has caused her family adds weight to the burdens she has been bearing for the last 2 years. At least before she could work hard and try her best to support her children. Now she sits in her house, thinking about the things that she has told me, waiting for the day when she’ll be able to walk and work.

***

This work is slow and bitter. Like supari.

Farewell Pune

On Monday evening I’m moving to Nagpur/Mangurda/Mulghavan. It’s hard to believe that I am done with my formal Marathi instruction and that I am about to begin my full time research. Friday was my last day at AIIS. It was sad to say goodbye to my teachers and friends at AIIS, but I left with a feeling of accomplishment. Obviously I’m nervous about shifting to a village where I will be the only person who speaks English. I will be relying on my limited Marathi. But as I said my goodbyes on Friday I received word after word of encouragement and promised to keep everyone up to date on how my experience unfolds.

Yesterday I spent the day hopping around Pune doing some last minute errands (like sending home some things that I won’t need while living in a village in the Yavatmal District). As I rode from place to place and passed familiar and favorite places, I realized how comfortable I’ve grown here. I know where I’m going (most of the time). I have favorite places. Looking out of my rickshaw, I felt a fondness for Pune. The weather here has been beautiful the last few days. For some reason when it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit, sunny, and a bit breezy, the city seems less crowded and a little friendlier. I sat outside eating Pav Bhaji (Pow Bah-gee) and sipping a strawberry milkshake (it’s strawberry season here…YUM!). As I enjoyed the gentle breeze I felt grateful for all of the great times I’ve enjoyed in Pune. It’s been a pleasant farewell weekend. I’ll miss Pune…the lovely weather, the friends I’ve made here,  the variety of delicious food…

So. What lies ahead of me?
Great question. I have a vague idea.
I’ll be here (the little red dot):

On Monday I will take an overnight train to Nagpur. For the next two weeks I’ll focus on coming up with a presentation to give at the Fulbright Conference in Cochin, Kerala at the beginning of March. I’ll probably take a short trip to Sangita’s place (the red dot in both maps) to introduce myself and begin the process of getting to know Mulghavan and it’s citizens. But the research really won’t begin until I get back from the conference.

What exactly will I be doing?

Another good question. The plan is to spend 75% of my time living with Sangita in Mulghavan (the other 25% of the time I’ll spend at Ajay and Yogini’s farm sorting through interviews and evaluating my process). The issue of agricultural development and the adverse effect it has had on many farmers in Eastern Maharashtra is complex. Over the last 4 years I’ve read about genetically modified crops, irrigation schemes, and the lack of access to credit and the troubles that farmers face when it comes to borrowing money from private moneylenders (among many other issues). Amidst all of these articles I was unable to find any substantial information about why farmers continue to grow cotton, even as these negative patterns of crop failure, loss, and debt have persisted over the last 20 years. Why do farmers who don’t benefit from planting cotton (usually an expensive genetically modified variety of cotton), and fall even further into debt because of this—why do they continue to plant cotton year after year? These are the contradictions that have pulled me deep into this issue. This is why I am in India. I figured that since no one has really written about farmers’ driving decision factors and the sociological complexities that play a part in this issue, I will.

So over the next few months I’ll live in Mulghavan, a small village in the Yavatmal District of Maharashtra, and get to know a few different cotton farmers and their families. The cotton season is from June to November or December, depending on the Monsoon season. During this time I’ll try my best to learn about their daily lives and the business of cotton farming. And hopefully, at the end of my time in Yavatmal, I’ll have a collection of stories that will shed some light on this question.

Of course, I’ll be updating the blog with photos and some of these stories.

Keep an eye out for a post related to my presentation for the Kerala Conference in the next couple of weeks.

Until next time friends!