Critical Collective (CC): What led you to consider the Sundarbans as a subject?

Ishita Chakraborty (IC): I tend to embrace water bodies -- philosophically, politically and personally. I am inspired by the work of French philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant. I use his concept of relation to artistically translate the movement of water.

However, it was my primary interest in the question of migration that took me to the Sundarbans. Over there, I started focusing on issues of climate migration and the fight for sustainable living. I specifically wanted to explore contemporary ecological concerns from a cultural perspective and demonstrate how human identity is intricately intertwined with the natural environment. I immersed myself in the investigation of how our relationship with land and water shapes us as individuals and communities. The work that emerged from this project reflects the cordial potential of our connection to nature and exemplifies how essential biodiversity and cultural diversity are to survival.

CC: Ranbir Kaleka used video art to document people’s conceptions of home and memory in the precarious landscape of the Sundarbans. What kind of media did you select for your work there? What are the factors that impacted your choices?

IC: The forests of the Sundarbans still carry the wounds of the India-Bangladesh partition like a clear demarcation line that divides land and water. But today, it is not only humans who are on the move. The migration of mangroves is an indicator that the ecosystem of the river delta is under tremendous stress. As Asia’s largest climate migration, this has already set off a red alert in the region. The rising sea level, the frequent cyclonic storms and the disappearance of entire islands in the Sundarbans delta continue to produce climate refugees.

For my forthcoming exhibition, Sleeping in the Bed of Salt, to be shown at Gallery Espace, Delhi, I have chosen to work across diverse mediums like video, textile, drawing and poetry. But cyanotype prints are at this exhibition’s core and work as a link to other mediums. For me, the cyanotype embodies this land’s sun, salt, water, air, soil, the flora and the fauna. It functions like an artist’s sketchbook; I could carry it almost everywhere and produce works on the move. When I went deep inside the forest or the mud flats, I let the paper stand in between breathing roots or placed it in the water to records the effects of high and low tides. Sometimes, I would simply take a chunk of loose soil from a dam and place it on the paper.

Despite the range of mediums covered, this exhibition is a unified and interconnected body of work where different parts complement one another. The cyanotypes are accompanied by a textile piece which local fisherwomen have (partially) produced. As an artist, it is crucial for me to find a non-hierarchical vocabulary, inclusive of these voices that are kept suppressed. The fact of living a precarious life on the delta appears like a flowing river in these women’s kantha works, becoming their song of resistance.

My video work has been shaped as a docu-fiction with an anthropological approach. The vast span of water, moonwalks in the mangroves, the sound of crickets merging with the glow of bioluminescent algae, an approaching cyclone…these are some of the elements reflected on screen. Ecofeminist oral narratives also appear in the video. In this work, two entirely opposite ecosystems, land and water, merge and re-emerge.

CC: Resistance has been a major theme in your work, especially with the aim of centering the voices of subaltern groups. What kind of a narrative did you seek to create with your work on the Sundarbans, especially for this exhibition?

IC: As an artist born and bred in West Bengal, I wish to retrace diverse forms of vernacular philosophy that have existed in and around the coast of the Bay of Bengal. These include the spiritual and mundane aspects of daily life among the marginalized seafaring and forest communities that inhabit this region. I was fascinated by the Sundarban delta’s history of religious, cultural and intellectual encounters. Mythologically, Bonbibi, venerated by locals as the goddess of the forest, is believed to have ordered restraint on human greed in this land. This land also redefines the ethics of the human-nature relationship. My new body of work revisits the folktales of the Sundarbans to examine how knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next and how these oral narratives remediate an endangered land and its people.

In my work, the forest is the stage; the flora and fauna, humans, animals and marine life the protagonists. The climate refugees, the honey collectors, the winemakers, the fishermen, the endangered Sundari and Hetal trees -- all tell their tales in their own voices and words, revealing many silenced realities. During my research, I also focused on women’s struggle for decolonization and indigenous (land) rights and their fight against climate change. Within India’s capitalist, casteist and religious hierarchies, indigenous knowledge, especially as told through women, has been neglected. But when it comes to the daily effects of climate change on local communities, women and children are the heart of the impact, since men often migrate to cities to earn a living. So, it was important to place their stories at the fore.

CC: As the conflict between the human and animal worlds becomes more acute in the shrinking space of the Sundarban mangroves, terms like “climate refugees” and “tiger widows” become increasingly associated with the region. How does your work interact with the non-human elements of the delta, which are a part of its everyday life, ecology and mythology?

IC: It seems as if the rhizomatic roots of the mangrove forests deeply entangle and weave together human and non-human lives in the Sundarbans. I noticed the ubiquitous presence of the Bengal Tiger in the lowlands in the narratives of the local people. But in the age of the Anthropocene, the difficulty of a sustainable co-existence becomes more visible, as poverty, hunger and climate change force fishermen and tigers into the same shrinking territory.

In my current artistic practice, I nurture aesthetic and poetic expressions that highlight the relationship between humans and nature as inseparable. Amitav Ghosh’s verse from the novel Jungle Nama summarizes it well:

Thousands of islands rise from the rivers’ rich silts,

Crowned with forests of mangroves, rising on stilts,

This is the Sundarbans, where laden waters give birth;

To a vast jungle that joins ocean and earth.

To depict this symbiotic equation, my work includes forms such as hand-embroidered mudskippers on textile, breathingroots and mangrove leaves on cyanotypes, oral narratives of local fisherwomen singing the verses of Bonbibi, and river songs of the boatman, Jongolee.

CC: You have also explored the Brazilian Amazon as part of your work on climate migration. Are there any similarities you see between that and the Sundarbans?

IC: My upcoming residency awarded by ProHelvetia is for a project titled “Resistência: The Voices of the Rivers”. The idea for this emerged during my month-long stay with fish, crab and honey collectors on the Satjelia Island in the Sundarbans. I plan to take forward this project by exploring the Brazilian Amazon, and finding parallels between how the worlds of animals, plants, people and spirits come together in both these fragile ecoscapes. My research in Brazil will be based on field recordings, deep listening, eco-acoustic practices and oral poetry traditions in the Amazonia, once again focusing on women’s ecological resistance.

CC: The economy of the Sundarbans has traditionally depended on prawn and crab fishing, timber and honey, leaves and medicinal plants. But recent reports mention that these forms of livelihood and revenue have declined over the years. Can you comment on this?

IC: During my month-long stay in Satjelia, I had multiple encounters with locals who depend on the forest for their livelihood. For example, I met Jongolee, a veteran manjhi (boatman) who is also a storyteller and sings songs of the conflict and co-existence between humans and non-humans. Locals like him describe how survival through forest-based resources has become more complicated because of rules imposed by government authorities to protect biodiversity. As a result, seasonal migration for livelihood has become necessary for their sustenance.

The physiography of the Sundarbans is shaped by a unique combination of land and water. Islands like Ghoramara are shrinking faster than ever and will most likely disappear, just like the Lohachara island did. In some of these places, I met a number of would-be climate refugees; the fear of disappearance seems to engulf everyone, including children. The precarious nature of the lives of these islanders begs the question: Who wants to become a refugee in their own home?

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