Critical Collective (CC): A good part of your recent practice, your writing and thinking has been devoted to the idea of the Anthropocene. Can you explain your position in the context of India, and the broader questions around ecology?
Ravi Agarwal: I became interested in and a critic of the idea of the Anthropocene especially since it creates a dominant science based reality about the world we inhabit, and submerges other perspectives. Of course many of its predictions based on global data are alarming, and a cause for concern, but it only propagates an idea of the nature culture divide. In a contradictory note, the assumptions behind naming this an era of the Anthropocene itself is the problem, since it assumes that everyone lives in nature the same way and impacts it equally. My engagements on the ground, whether on migrant labour, or how people inhabit their world, have led me to understand that our relationships with nature are as ‘lived’ spaces and varied. The shift to an abstract idea of nature has caused those without power to suffer the most in the drive to ‘progress.’ For me to think of this in the Indian context is to contest and reconfigure the ideas of late modernity which has flattened differences, aided capitalism and disproportionately rewarded those with more power. Gandhiji had seen this early on, and I think his ideas are a good starting point for moving towards futures where there is true equity and justice.
CC: Would you see your latest works as addressing ways of fostering new relationships of man with ecology? How is this edition of your ongoing project different from what you have done so far since 2013?
RA: The Desert Project is one of those rare times where I have delved directly into my personal history. However the old ancestral home in Rajasthan is also on my mind, in diverse ways a representative of the Anthropocene as well as a contestation of it. That tension is inherent and visible at least in post-colonial South Asia. It is a struggle of identity, local systems of water, labour and economies, food and crops, attire and traditions. So in this case I see my ‘personal’ as a location which has a lot to say, and which contests a homogenising ‘global.’
CC: The merging of the personal and the political reverberates in your ongoing project The Desert of the Anthropocene. How do you think your segment in the art project at IAF 2019 has furthered this question that your work seeks to address?
RA: In this project I see my mother’s room in the now abandoned haveli as the centre of the question of a changing landscape, recently being occupied by limestone mining, cement plants, canal based water systems and a nuclear test site. The human abandonment of the home is being replaced by new capital with its global networks. A human landscape is replaced by an abstract cartography of the extra-planetary and distant satellite image, as in the Satellite Diary series of images. I want to suggest that the idea of nature is a network of local inhabitations.
CC: The photograph of a 150 year old well outside of a haveli in the desert, lying unused and dry is very powerful. It resonates strongly with a bygone era, and addresses the issue of the passage of time, obsolescence detritus and decay, which is so much a part of your work. How do you think the semantics of such symbols (well, rusted water pump, plastic pipes) change in your investigation of nature?
RA: When something loses value it decays, becomes waste and ultimately becomes extinct. To me waste, decay, detritus is a signification of what we ‘value.’ Forty years ago the haveli had no road, no piped water, and no electricity. But it had plenty of ground water, skilled craftsmen who could construct without steel and mortar and fresh food. Today the well is dry since the water table is more than 400 metres deep, the craftsmen do not exist and food is in plastic packaging. Change is inevitable and needed, but what kind of change? It does not need to mean a loss of local agency and the decimation of nature. We have to decide which values to keep and which should be jettisoned (like social and gender inequity). That is progress to my mind.
CC: You rake up the dichotomy of fertile/barren in your work. Would you draw parallels between what is happening in the name of infrastructural development in the country as synonymous with breakdown of the ecological system. The garb of development and the irreversible destruction of nature...
RA: Why are we confronted by the question of development vs ecology? Why is that a question at all? It shows to me that the framework we have allowed ourselves to be in is the wrong one. Of course it has roots in histories of power and exploitations but also in our creation of an alienated ‘self.’ Akeel Bilgrami the philosopher, writes about the non-alienated self as a goal for society to overcome the tragedy of the commons. To change the question, it is evident that our view of nature needs to change, but this may not be possible without rethinking the ‘we.’ We are desperately trying to reverse the trajectory of the crisis of nature today, (for example climate change), but can it be done merely through capital and technology, or is a more fundamental shift in our framework of understanding diverse human-nature interactions needed? How do we meaningfully include nature in our equations of modernity? These are the questions I am interested in as an artist and environmentalist.
CC: Another very interesting facet that you used as part of your display at the IAF art project was the use of ledgers. You have demarcated the centre space to handwritten ledgers. Would you share your thoughts on that section?
The hand-made ledgers, some of which are from the 1940s, belonged to my grandfather. They use the Indian single column accounting system (bahai khata), and contain a host of information on prices of grain etc. They, for me, are part of a personal memory but also contain archival information. I placed a video of the Pokhran- I test (the nuclear testing site is about 400 km west of the haveli) amongst them, as a contrast to the times.