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Harsh reality: How a fisherman finds no romance in the beauty of nature

Ravi Agarwal’s pictures from a fishing village in Pondicherry force us to rethink the romance of the sea.

art and culture Updated: Apr 30, 2016 18:08 IST
Namita Kohli
Namita Kohli
Hindustan Times
Climate change,Rising sea levels,Environment

The innards of a boat engine, and a fishing net. At Else, All Will Be Still, photographer and environment activist Ravi Agarwal’s show at Gallery Espace, the mundane tools of a fisherman transform into ‘high art’, where the colours and textures in the pictures are to be admired, and layers of meaning wait to be unraveled.

But what is ‘high art’ for the urban spectator has a different meaning for the fisherman — for him, the engine and the fishing net only signify the daily struggles of earning a livelihood. The hues of the water, and that of the skies above in the photograph, The Sea, might be awe-inspiring beauty for the ‘outsider’, but the fisherman finds no romance in these sights. Or rather, he cannot afford to. So, how do they relate to the sea? Agarwal deliberates on this question in his work, and tries to tell a different story of the sea, and of the relationship of man with nature.

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In Agarwal’s pictures, nature is not an ’object’ to be admired or enjoyed, it is, rather, a lived relationship. And one which is not bereft of the intersections of power, capital and technology.

For those who live near the sea, things are changing, he says. “And worse, those whose lives are at stake are not even aware of this,” says Agarwal, who heads the city-based NGO, Toxics Link. Exhibits at this show — photographs, videos, and even a wooden catamaran (planks of wood tied together to make for a simple boat on which fishermen venture out in the sea) embossed with poetry — started taking shape about two years ago in Pondicherry, when Agarwal met Selvam, a fisherman.

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Through Selvam, who could speak a smattering of English, the photographer discovered that technology had not necessarily brought good fortune for the smaller fishermen. While those who had access to land and money bought bigger, more powerful boats with diesel engines — ones that could travel 20 km into the sea and withstand the rough waters — those who couldn’t afford to do so have to be content with their wooden boats and smaller nets. Agarwal captures this ’hierarchy’ in Engines 20 km, the matrix of pictures of different engines tied to boats and covered with coloured plastic sheets. “The fishermen have moved inside villages, while the shores have turned into places of retreats, with highly commercialised resorts,” he says. For those such as Selvam then, it’s a struggle to keep their ties with nature intact. “They may have moved inside the villages, away from the sea, but at night, the fishermen come to sleep at the beach,” he says. Life may have changed, but the air on the beach is still cooler, and the sound of the waves still acts as a lullaby.

What: Else, All Will Be Still

Escape, 16, Community Centre, New Delhi

When: 11am - 7 pm

Till May 14, 2016

First Published: Apr 30, 2016 18:07 IST