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!

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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!

India to sue Monsanto

I saw this little piece of news a few weeks back. Although brinjal is definitely not cotton, and Karnataka is south of Maharashtra (where I’ll be doing my research), this news is exciting and pertinent! As I watched the report the wheels began turning in my little head (which, is actually very little. I can wear children’s sized hats, ok?).

How will this case effect the future relationship between Monsanto and India?

Will this case of biopiracy shed light on how Monsanto is a for-profit company that uses patents and new technology to make money and keep it’s shareholders happy? Will more people begin to question whether or not small-scale farmers in countries like India benefit as much as Monsanto and it’s shareholders do?

Will the take home message from this case simply be that Monsanto should have compensated the farmers for the seeds and the knowledge that they stole? Or should “possession” of the aforementioned knowledge remain in the farmers’ hands? What is the benefit of this “new technology” that Monsanto continues to introduce? If Monsanto is stealing knowledge from farmers and local universities, do we really need it’s expensive seeds in the first place? Is Monsanto simply taking knowledge from communities and repackaging it in a flashier and more expensive packet?

I wonder how much influence farmers actually have? Could this case bring more attention to how farmers struggle in the shadow of debt incurred in order to afford Monsanto’s costly new technologies like genetically modified seeds?

Towards the end of the video, the reporter comments that India is a huge market for Monsanto, so this case or any other problem that Monsanto encounters is unlikely to drive them away from India. So what will suing Monsanto do? I suppose putting them on a leash is better than letting them run rampant…

Just some of my initial thoughts. I’d love to hear your’s. Comment below! Till next time…

So here’s the deal…

Ok. So some of you may be wondering when I’m going to blog about what this blog says it’s actually about: cotton farming in India. I figured it’s about time I explain my projected timeline for this year. The reason why my research topic has yet to be a topic of any of my posts is precisely because I haven’t really begun my research. You see, in addition to a research grant I also received a “Critical Language Enhancement Award” (or a CLEA) to study Marathi.

So my timeline goes something like this:

3 months of intensive Marathi study in Pune (the little green house on the map)

3 months of part time language study while concurrently beginning my research. At this point I think I will stay in Pune for the first month of this concurrent period. Learning Marathi has proven to be quite the undertaking! The AIIS faculty are wonderful, and I definitely want to keep learning from them for as long as I possibly can! Pune is only a few hours away from my advisor and affiliate institute in Bombay. Only having class a couple of hours a day will give me time to delve into the reading that I’ve brushed the surface of so far. And I’ll be able to travel back and forth to Bombay to meet with my advisor, some experts in this field that she knows, and who knows what else! Around February I will head to Yavatmal, Maharashtra (the little pink flag). There I will continue my language study with a private tutor (hopefully someone who will be willing to keep working with me throughout my research and help with translation and interviews!).

And the last 6 months of my time in India is just for research.

The beauty and the *sometimes* terror of having this independent research project is that everything is very dependent on circumstance. Like most things in life, it’s all about who you happen to know and where you happen to be. As my research advisor says, I must follow the snowballing method. One contact will lead to another.

So for now, I am focusing on learning Marathi. And in my spare time I am reading up on the history of land reform acts and economic policy in India. Eventually I’ll begin to build up a list of potential resources for my fieldwork. Eventually I’ll start reading about current issues surrounding cotton farming. For now I’m building up my understanding of the context in which everything is taking place! And developing basic conversational Marathi so that communicating with my interviewees is a little more natural and a little more comfortable. Somewhere down this road, I’ll post a blog about my research.

Until then, keep checking back for anecdotal accounts of my life in India!