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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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

99% is a lot

Last Tuesday afternoon I sat in my apartment in Pune, India watching a live stream from Zuccotti Park as the NYPD closed in on Occupy Wall Street and cleared the park. The sounds of horns honking on the streets below mingled with the desperate cries for peace and justice that were being transmitted from New York City over the internet waves and into my home in Southeast Asia.

I’ve been in India since the middle of August and I’ve been following the Occupy Movement since it began. I’m fortunate to have many friends who are taking part in the movement so I have been able to get my news of Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Orlando/Oakland/San Francisco/Asheville/Tucson from various media sources as well as from my friends’ personal accounts.

I believe in Occupy Wall Street whole-heartedly. What does that even mean? How can I believe in something that hasn’t produced any concrete demands? How can I believe in something that I am so far away from and have not experienced first-hand? I believe in the essence of the movement—in community organizing and consensus. As Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics recently said, “Everybody wants to live a life of meaning. And today we live in a money economy where we don’t really depend on the gifts of anybody. But we buy everything. Therefore we don’t really need anybody. Because whoever grew my food or made my clothes or built my house, well, if they died or if I alienate them, if they don’t like me that’s ok. I can just pay somebody else to do it. And it’s really hard to create community if the underlying knowledge is we don’t need eachother…. So people consume together. But joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.” 

If I were in the United States right now, I’d like to believe that I would have figured out a way to get to New York City and participate in this movement. But I’m in India. I received a Fulbright-Nehru student research grant to research the modernization/commercialization of agriculture and its effects on farmers in India. More specifically, I am here to speak with small-scale cotton farmers in Maharashtra. You see, there is a disturbing number of cotton farmers who kill themselves every day because of the amount of debt that they have incurred in order to farm and compete on a global level. In 2010 alone, 15,964 farmer suicides across India were recorded.  This number only accounts for the number of suicides officially recorded and research shows that there are many suicides that don’t meet the criteria for official government statistics. For instance, if the land title has not been transferred to a widow after her husband commits suicide and she subsequently commits suicide, her death is not counted in the official data. Research also shows that farmers commit suicide for two main reasons: 1. Crop failure and 2. Debt (taking out loans to purchase expensive genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other costly inputs).

So while people gather together to occupy public spaces in the USA, while their voices join together to shed light on the ever-growing gap between the 1% and the 99%, I sit in my apartment in Pune, India and ask, who is the 99%? While I’m sure that many of the organizers and activists who are participating in OWS are desparate, they aren’t commiting suicide by the thousands.

Ninety-nine percent is a pretty big blanket statistic. A lot of people fall into it. I fall into it. I will be paying off my student loans for many years to come. This year I’m getting paid about $13,000—a salary that puts me just above the poverty line of $10,890 and is not enough for me to continue to pay off my loans while I do my research (thanks Mom and Dad for covering for me while I’m gone and really Sallie Mae? I don’t qualify for an educational deferal because my Indian University that I’m affiliated with isn’t on your list of bonified institutions?!!!). At the same time, I’m living quite a comfortable life here in India. I eat out, I live in a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, I travel and I was able to be generous with my Christmas gifts this year.

So how about the subjects of my research, the farmers that are killing themselves out of desperation? They are part of the 99% too. I feel guilty being in the same bracket of statistics as them. The 99% includes a whole lot of people and a whole lot of different people at that, inducing conversations about race and gender and privilege. It includes US students with debt and cotton farmers in India with debt.

But the 1% remains the same. Just take a look at Monsanto, a corporation that has been profitting from the sales of their expensive genetically modified seeds here in India. Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant (no, not the charming British actor) received a compensation package of $12.4 million in 2010 and is ranked #9 among the top earning CEOs in the US.

So as you read the latest criticisms of the Occupy Movement and watch the latest horrifying video of policemen dousing students in pepper spray, keep this in mind:
The 99% is big and broad. The 99% probably includes you. It definitely includes cotton farmers in India. We are many. And we need each other.

I want to live in a world that cultivates creativity through community, that combats this mentality that I can just whip out my wallet and solve all my problems. In order to do that, I need to talk with the rest of the 99%. I need to acknowledge how my privilege adds to (or at least exempts me from) the burden of another person who is also in the 99%. I need to do my best to acknowledge and address the broad and diverse needs of the entire 99%. We all do.

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…

You Live, You Learn. Today I’m $30 wiser.

Saturday morning. I woke up and skimmed over the section on Mumbai in my Lonely Planet India guidebook. There are lots of sights to see, and I figured that as I wandered around I would stumble across a few. I narrowed down the areas that I wanted to explore: The Fort Area and Colaba.

I waited till about 10 am to hit the train. I wanted to avoid the morning rush. When I got on it was much less crowded, although all the seats were taken. All I had to do was wait a few minutes and several women indicated that I could have their seat since they were getting off at the next stop. I sat down and let the breeze from the fans and the open windows wash over me. I looked out the window and saw sights of Mumbai that didn’t make the guidebook cut: the slums, kids playing wiffle ball, “billboards” which are ads painted on concrete walls–remarkably the font doesn’t really differ from one ad to the next.

I reached CST, snapped a few photos and ducked into a Cafe Coffee for some caffeine. I had slept well the night before, but a cappuccino and a place to flip through the guidebook one last time wouldn’t hurt.

cappuccino from Cafe Coffee

I oriented myself on the map and ate the last few bites of my samosa. First order of business, find the CS church in Mumbai. I had looked up the address on a whim earlier that morning and it happened to be right in the Fort neighborhood and in the direction of the rest of the sights I wanted to see. It was easy enough to find. Leah greeted me in the Reading Room and invited me to come back later that evening for the screening of the annual meeting. We talked for a bit and then I went on my way.

I walked south down Mahatma Gandhi Road, passing bookstalls and coming across the first sight on my path: the Flora Fountain. 

As I continued past the Flora Fountain down MG Road, I came to the University of Mumbai. This was an area of Fort that I had meant to spend more time observing, however it was at this point that Albert began to talk to me.

He said he was a student of the University of Mumbai and we chatted for a little while as I continued to walk. He called me “like his big sister” and insisted that he show me a festival that I was so lucky to be here for because it happens only once every 4 years. Every time I asked him what festival it was his answer was drowned out by the noisy traffic. We walked quickly and I discovered that Albert was from Pune. We passed the cricket fields, the cricket stadium, and the football stadium. Finally we arrived at a temple and burial site. This was where the victims of the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai were burned. Apparently the Obamas had paid their respects here on their last visit to India.

Lord Krishna

I couldn’t understand the name of the temple, and when I asked Albert to spell it he bashfully said he couldn’t. This should have been my first clue. A University of Mumbai student in his 3rd year of studies and he couldn’t spell the name of this temple for me? I didn’t think much of it, giving Albert the benefit of the doubt.

where they burn the bodies

We sat and he told me about the crematorium and how the rich burn their loved ones with sandalwood which costs about 4 lakhs (400,000 Rs, $8,760 USD). The middle class use mango trees (6,000 Rs, $130 USD) and the poor use banana trees (4,000 Rs, $87 USD). It takes about 3-5 hours to burn the body and the family sits across from the body as it burns. The ashes are collected and the rich take them to the Ganges, the holy river in Northeast India. Those who can’t afford to do that usually throw the ashes into the Arabian sea, just a few minutes from the crematorium.

where they store the ash pots

Albert and the guy at the temple gate showed me the wood they use, where they store the pots to collect the ashes, where they bury the babies, and the sacred tree. As we came to the end of our tour, the guy at the temple started talking about how expensive it is to bury the babies and to cremate the poor. I realized they were asking me for a donation. I was cornered! I felt obligated to donate something. After all they had given me a tour and let me take pictures. Fortunately I had been smart enough to keep my bigger bills in my pocket and when I opened my wallet I showed him that I only had about 400 rupees, which is about $8. They were not happy that that was all I had and told me there was a bank nearby, but I insisted that was all I could give. The feeling of being ripped off began to grab at my core, leaving me feeling a little ashamed and nauseous.

sacred tree

When we left the temple Albert insisted that I go to the ATM since it was one that accepted all cards and I would need more money. I was a little confused, but went along with it. Again, I put most of the money that I took out in a separate compartment of my bag. We got in a cab so that I could go on with my sight seeing. Albert said he had to teach a class at 2 and first he had to stop by the bookstand and buy his students their books. They cost 300 rupees each and he had five students. He looked at me. He looked at my purse. Not again! I was frustrated, but also felt grateful that Albert had shown me around. I got out my wallet.

“I only have 1,000 RS,” I told him.

“That’s only 3 books,” he said.

“I’m sorry, that’s what I have.”

“Ok,” he said, holding out his hands. After I gave him the money he asked me if I was happy. I lied and said I was.

“Because if you’re not happy you can take the money back.” He knew I was upset that he was scamming me.

“No, it’s ok,” I said, rolling my eyes at how naive I had been. As Albert got out of the cab he said make sure you don’t talk to Indians. They just want your money. He repeated these words of advice several times. I laughed. Ok. He had gotten his money, but I think he could tell that I was a well-meaning young girl who had learned her lesson and didn’t want to be put in that situation again.

I made it to the Gateway of India. Built to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V, it was completed in 1924. It’s a gathering place of local and foreign tourists. You can pay to have your photo taken or you can buy a giant balloon. I didn’t stick around long. The afternoon sun was hot (where were the monsoon drizzles when you wanted them?) and the plaza was busy. I was ready for a quiet cool place, The National Gallery of Modern Art.

There were very few people there. It was nice to walk around slowly in a quiet place (although the sounds of the traffic bustling outside were still audible). I was able to gather my wits about me. I also really loved some of the pieces on display. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed, so I can’t show you the ones that I liked.

Next stop, FabIndia. It was time to get some local garb. I walked back up MG Road and by the time I got to the CST area, it was about 5pm. Just in time for the screening of the annual meeting at the CS church. I was hesitant to go, but thought it would at least be nice to sit in an air-conditioned room for a little while before taking my train back to TISS. I’m glad I went. I enjoyed hearing thoughts about what church really is (structure of Truth and Love, in any form) and how change is important in the infinite understanding of Truth.

After the screening I was able to get a bite to eat and chat with some of the members about my project. These conversations led me to think about what types of solutions I could be offering farmers. I need to be wary of just marching into a community, taking their stories, and marching right back out. What’s in it for them? A story in a newspaper really doesn’t make much of a difference to them. I also began to think about what angles I could take with my research. How can I link farmers’ criticism of Monsanto in the US to the struggle of cotton farmers in Maharashtra, India?

Victoria Terminus (CST) at night

I had lots to mull over on the train ride home. It had been a live and learn day. It seems like most of my days here have been so far. And to think, I haven’t even started trying to learn Marathi yet!

Well, it’s Monday morning and I’m going to wander around the area surrounding my campus a bit. Tomorrow I meet with my advisor, Ritambhara. And on Wednesday I finally head off to Pune. Things are unfolding, slowly but surely. Until next time!