The earth beneath their feet

‘Withering’ is one of the many diverse exhibitions on view as part of the ongoing Indian Photography Festival (IPF) 2019, at the State Gallery of Art, Hyderabad. The collection features photographs shot by Mumbai-based Zishaan A Latif that capture the changing topography of Majuli island in Assam, as the mighty and ravenous Brahmaputra nibbles away its terra firma.

Zishaan vividly recalls how, in September 2018, he felt the ground beneath him give way. He was witness to change caused by erosion. He tried to capture the moment, in vain, and was reminded of the power of nature. Zishaan’s photography series is a documentation of the erosion in Majuli and of a Mising Tribe village called Misa Mora, located on the north western banks of the island, with a population of about 350.

Zishaan’s body of work includes ad films, news feature photography and images shot for the non-profit sector. In an email interview, he says the work flow has been a natural progression and the result of being at the right place at the right time.

Zishaan A Latif

Zishaan A Latif

The seed for ‘Withering’ was metaphorically sown in January 2015, when he first visited Majuli for an Asian Paints assignment, to document the colours of the island through its culture. His assignment was for two days and he felt he couldn’t even scratch the surface. “I sensed there was a lot more to this land that meets the eye – a physical, social and cultural shift that has been taking place for a long time, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” he remembers.

He felt as though Majuli urged him to slow down. He went back in April 2017 and stayed for two weeks. That’s when he noticed a change in the physical topography of the island, especially in the Kamalabari ferry ghat, which is the gateway to Majuli from Nemati ghat.

He observed that the ghats continue to shift overnight, and in every subsequent trip, he noticed a clear wearing away on the edges of the island.

Zishaan has made eight trips in three years, and noticed the Brahmaputra gobble away parts in a frenzy, caused by multiple aggressors such as ill-planned dams and embankments. He says, “For centuries, the islanders have lived with the river as their life source and faith. They live with nature and not against it.” But the governing authorities haven’t been on a similar path, he observes, “Majuli is down by a third already, and might have only 25 odd years before it disappears for good. This urgency made me want to document the ‘Drowning state of Existence’.”

From the Withering series

The photographer has interacted with people in the region and recalls an account from Jamini Payang, a traditional weaver who was one of the initial associates of late Sanjoy Ghose, a development activist. Jamini hails from the Mising tribe and observes how ‘nature has its own course, we cannot hamper its progression and regression, as we need to work with nature, not against it.’

Zishaan also recalls a conversation with geography professor and former principal of Majuli College, Noren Thakuria, who believes that Majuli is not eroding, but transforming. Zishaan says, “Noren said that the parts of Majuli are only moving around from one place to another, what was once land for people to live on, has now moved to become fresh grazing land for cattle; it’s a cycle. His statement took me by surprise but made me think. His definition has changed the way I perceive Majuli, the island that is eroding.”

While Zishaan’s images of the island and its people are stark, mirroring ground realities, he also takes the liberty to juxtapose his photographs with satellite imagery, to give a bird’s eye view of the shift on ground zero over three decades. Google Earth maps from 1984 to 2018 have been used to highlight the overarching notion of ‘Permanence vs Impermanence’.

“The overlay of my work on satellite images created layers to feel a physical displacement through a digital world,” he says.

He points out that by the year 2000, even satellite imagery started to get glitchy. In the layout for the exhibition at the IPF, these same satellite images have been aligned in a sequence to suggest a shift, a movement merged with the reality of satellite imagery, reiterating the idea of ‘Permanence vs Impermanence’ , where the Brahmaputra is the permanence and the overlaid images of people and their life is in a constant flux of change, of a fading future, the impermanence.

(‘Withering’ is on view at State Gallery of Art, Hyderabad, as part of Indian Photography Festival 2019, till October 20)


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