Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra
On December 18, as the farmers’ protest entered its 23rd day, came the first issue of Trolley Times — a bi-weekly, bilingual newsletter meant for and by the protestors. On its masthead was a turbanned farmer carrying a flag. In the subsequent editions, the illustrations on the masthead have been dedicated to different subjects, from women participants at the protest to marginalised labour to, most recently, a youngster jumping up to lock the police’s water cannon. “The aim was to turn it into a world-class newspaper as a voice of the kisan protest 2020. Since the first issue, the front page has been seen as a ‘work of art’. Keeping in focus the true nature of this brave endeavour, we are cognisant of the message and the impact it has,” state artists Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral, who work with the core team behind the newsletter.
Belonging to middle-class families in Punjab, the two have also been associated with Akal Academy Baru Sahib in Himachal Pradesh that works with farmers. They have been visiting villages across Haryana and Punjab and amplifying urgent issues of agrarian crisis worldwide. “We have seen the movement expand at different levels. It is important to understand the concerns and come up with relevant solutions,” they say.
The Gurugram-based duo has been designing and packaging the newsletter since its inception. They are also behind kisanekta.in, an open-source document of the protests that allows people to share images, videos, poetry, illustrations and other relevant material. “This protest is unlike any other. There is deep compassion. There are different jathas (groups), and pillars that have now emerged as tiny villages. One can witness the sheer dedication of the elderly involved and the shifting nature of gender roles. These are people who are scared that their lives will be completely altered after the laws are executed,” they say. Working together since 2003 and counted among renowned contemporary artists from South Asia, the duo is known for their pop-kitsch works, addressing issues ranging from consumerism to migration.
Closely following the farming crisis for over a decade, they have been frequently visiting the protest sites. “It’s an extremely one-sided law. There are critical concerns regarding issues such as Agricultural Produce Market Committee, corporate stocking, essential commodities,” they say. Their documentation of the movement and interviews with the farmers will comprise the second edition of the 2018 film Kisan Mukti March, which was part of the 2018-19 travelling exhibition. That, too, was focussed on the tribulations of farmers — from failed promises of loan waivers to higher cost of commodities due to GST.
Artist Arunkumar HG has turned to mythology to emphasise the role played by farmers in society. “Like we worship Annapurna as the goddess of food and nourishment, farmers are our annadata (providers of food), they should be respected as food providers. Food has become another commodity, we don’t really care about prakruti (nature) anymore,” says the Gurugram-based artist.
In recent weeks, he has interacted with several farmers protesting at Delhi’s Singhu border. Some of them feature in his digital poster that brings together aspects of the agrarian crisis. “Farmers have been protesting for years and it is high time the nation thought about these agrarian issues. This bill is contentious and needs to be discussed properly,” he says.
Growing up in a farmer’s family in Karnataka’s Shimoga district, Arunkumar, 52, speaks of the harmonious relationship that once existed between man and nature, and, how, over the years, he saw that being corroded. He has discussed several of their predicaments — from the impact of genetically modified seeds to agricultural monopolies — in his work. Individual stories have been shared through portraits of those whom he calls “Vulnerable Guardians” — small-scale farmers affected by the current crisis, who have been his protagonists over the years. In the last month, several photographs have been added to the archive. “It’s a large, organised, peaceful protest. I would call it historic. It is not shallow or politically-motivated. The kind of warmth is amazing and there is so much to learn,” says Arunkumar.
A decade ago, his father left cultivation in Bihar’s Kurmuri village to earn his living as a security guard in Hyderabad, but artist Umesh Singh says the pull of the soil remains strong as ever for them. Singh, who is based in Varanasi, sees similarities between the ongoing protests against Farm Laws and the 1917 Champaran Satyagraha, launched to protest against the forced indigo cultivation by the British. “Exactly 103 years later, Punjab farmers protesting at Singhu border and across India are not getting justice.
Neither are they being offered any solution by the government,” says Singh, a postgraduate from SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. Drawing a comparison between the two protests are Singh’s recent indigo-blue sketches titled Poora Neel. In the series Farmer Protest, he depicts how the farmers stand united in the present precarious situation, facing multiple challenges, from hostile weather to unfriendly policies. “In freezing weather, when everyone is resting and working from home, the feeders of our country are grappling for their rights,” adds Singh, 27, who had earlier showcased the plight of farmers at the Students’ Biennale segment of the 2018-19 Kochi-Muziris Biennale with the installation Uncomfortable Tools, featuring over 50 farming tools of erstwhile farmers from across Bhojpur.
On his way to Delhi to join the protesting farmers, Singh says he’s one of them. “Like many, my father gave it up because he found it difficult to make ends meet. If the situation becomes graver, who’ll produce food?” he asks.
On National Farmers Day (December 28) last year, artist Shweta Bhattad was seated with cotton farmers in her Paradsinga village near Nagpur, discussing how the Farm Bill “will create new countless coffins for farmers”. “The new laws will only add to the existing problems. Corporatisation of agriculture will lead to further helplessness, unfair pricing for the produce and smaller farmers might even lose their lands,” says Bhattad, 35.
Bhattad became familiar with farmers’ hardships in her childhood, during vacations and visits to her maternal grandfather, an Ayurveda specialist in Paradsinga. Those memories led her to initiate the Gram Art Project in 2013 to discuss agrarian concerns. From land art to yarn artefacts made from the non-GM, IPR-free non-hybrid indigenous cotton to performances, the Gram Art Project has taken different forms to express the artist’s opinions on agricultural issues. Over the years, the collective, which includes artists, farmers and village women, has designed and produced seed crackers, seed rakhis and calendars made from biodegradable, recyclable paper embedded with seeds.
Bhattad, who has a postgraduate degree in art from MS University, Baroda, initiated another project, “I Have a Dream”, at the Vancouver Biennale in 2014. Under it, artists and farmers across the globe, including Italy, Japan, Mexico and Pakistan, were encouraged to sow messages for the decision-making powers. Back in India, she urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “Grow in India” through his land portrait in 2016. Now, she again stands firmly behind the farmers in their protests against the new farm laws, which, she says, need to be repealed.
Even though she has been unable to travel to the protest site, discussions on the latest situation are held daily and performances (for instance, farmers lying in crop coffins) are also being organised. As more crop coffins gets added, she says, “we don’t want these to turn into coffins for farmers.”