Chronicles of loss: ‘Farm widows’ tell a story of bleak survival
Outside the art gallery at the India International Centre in New Delhi, spring puts on exhibit lush bougainvillea trees and a seamless blue sky. Waiting inside, are stark black and white photographs of women who lost their fathers, husbands and families to farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana between 2015 and 2017. Filmmaker and photographer Vijay Jodha’s ‘The First Witnesses’ couldn’t have been better timed to be on view.
Earlier this week, after a gruelling 200 kilometre walk to Mumbai from Nasik, over 35,000 farmers got their demands of loan waivers and right to forest land, among others, met by the government. Farmers have also been protesting in the capital under the banner of the ‘Bharatiya Kisan Union.’ The recent events make Jodha’s work even more relevant and necessary, for the ephemeral recall value of daily news doesn’t impress upon the graveness of farmer suicides in India.
Jodha travelled to both states of his own accord to meet the women who were left behind after their husbands, fathers and other family members took their lives. “Climate change, which has resulted in crops maturing early and the productivity of soil go down over the years, has made it impossible for tenant farmers to survive,” says Jodha, standing solemnly in front of his work. What is even more important is that subsidies are largely offered to owners of the farm lands and tenant farmers end up with nearly nothing. “This is barely discussed in the mainstream media and the purpose of my photographs is to put the witnesses’ faces back into the mainstream,” he adds.
The Telangana government, for instance, does not know the exact number of tenant farmers in the state, though they are estimated to be 25% of all farmers there. In an ambitious input-subsidy scheme to be launched in May, all land-owning farmers will receive Rs 4,000 per acre to help them with fertilizer and seed costs.
However, this doesn’t trickle down to tenant farmers, who lease most of the land from these owners. The reason for this is the absence of proper documentation. “For me, a primary function of documentary photography is to create a record. Photographs serve as records¬—even evidence of injustice. If years later, my images can serve as documents, there’d be no better reward for my effort,” says Jodha.
His style of portraiture remains uniform across the exhibition, and deliberately so. One after the other, women are seen holding either framed photographs or just physical copies that bear the portrait of their deceased fathers, husbands and other family members. They look straight at the camera, just like the faces in the photographs they’re seen holding. There’s an uncanny similarity between the women and the people in the photographs they’re holding—their faces are grim in the wake of the agrarian crisis and its aftermath, the burden of life looming large before their eventual death.
A portrait inside a portrait isn’t a new device in photojournalism, especially when depicting death. However, Jodha makes the images seem like they’d been shot on large format just like they used to do with royal portraits back in the day.
“I wanted to focus on the women, just like the way we are used to seeing well exposed and composed images of public figures. I wanted to express their individuality and dignity even in the face of such personal loss” Jodha elaborates, when asked about the aesthetic of the observed portraits. This year, in January alone, 104 farmers committed suicide in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, continuing over a decade-long trend of agrarian distress and uncertainty. Jodha plans to head there in July, and then to other parts of India to continue his work in the hope that India never forgets the faces that feeds its people.
What: The First Witnesses
When: Till March 18, 11am - 7pm
Where: Art Gallery, Kamladevi Complex, India International Centre, 40, Max Mueller Marg
Nearest metro station: Khan Market