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Whose terra firma is it anyway?

Passing by Worli Seaface, these days feels claustrophobic. Where the expanse of the sea once lay undisturbed, now stands mounds of rubble and towering machinery. The sea is being claimed by land, and marine life is being claimed by the talons of ‘development’. The global battle of nature versus humanity is continuous, further propagating the politicisation of land, and oppressive bureaucratisation.

It’s through his first solo show, De-notified Land Artist that activist Anupam Roy, attempts to urge a discourse on this material exploitation of land, and the suffering of ordinary citizens.

Protect the environment

Roy has had a long-standing association with grassroot movements, and the socio-political impact made by the conceptions of land rights. As a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, the artist has been deeply involved in sketching political banners and posters for various rallies. He is quick to add that this show is not a representation of any political party, or organisation. Roy says that he’s interested in looking at ‘land’ as a subjective concept, one that goes beyond the numerous movements. “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise, too late, that wealth is not in the bank accounts, and that you can’t eat money.”

These words by American Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin are scribbled below Roy’s massive horizontal painting, as an ode to the recently de-notified ‘Kachhua’ or Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS). The sanctuary in Varanasi is the world’s only protected area dedicated to freshwater turtles. It’s in danger of being the first protected area to possibly be wiped off the map since the introduction of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The de-notification has been passed to make way for the government’s plans to dredge the Ganga for an inland waterways project that will run through Varanasi, and continue until Haldia in West Bengal. Inspired by the film Turtles Can Fly, Roy’s painting shows floating marine life and plankton with nowhere to go, against the backdrop of construction.

Chaotic sense

The words by English philosopher, Francis Bacon, “I feel at home here in this chaos, because chaos suggests images to me,” is penned underneath Roy’s artwork as soon as you enter the gallery. Massive canvases hang on the walls, with inky black paint. Distorted figures, monsters, and human sketches whirl across the cloth in unison, almost resembling a collective oil-spill. Each painting depicts grassroot movements such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, or the disturbing Breast Tax policy that was imposed on the ‘untouchable’ women in Travancore until 1924.

It’s through paintings of both watercolour and black pigment, along with works of clay, that the artist conveys chaos. His brush strokes, and usage of paint is such, that even when you’re looking, but not really seeing, the canvases exude the sense of heaviness he is trying to portray. “Excess Annihilates Surplus,” is embedded on one of the panels in the gallery. It’s a concept, Roy is keen to highlight through the (created) chaos of the gallery space. “There is an excess of the material world, and my images are expressionistic of that,” he elaborates.

Mixing words

Using found objects like tarpaulin, mesh, ceramic, and matchboxes, amongst other things, the artist elevates these ravaging bodies and drawings to make them contemporary. He accompanies these sketches, with words by Hindi poet, Gorakh Pandey, social theorist, Michel Foucault, and philosopher, Moishe Postone. Author Sneha Ragavan’s lines plastered on the gallery wall, begin to make sense, “Anupam’s work captures the deprivation of political bodies in our landscapes, littered instead with bare life presented at times through deformed or ravaged labouring bodies, and at other times, through organs without bodies – a head, a limb, a breast, a foetus.” Roy’s penchant for mixing words with his paintings is apparent in three sketchbooks that are displayed in the space.

Ranging from drawings of the Chipko Movement, to poetry scribbled on thin sheets of paper and tissue, the handmade pages of his sketchbooks are as chaotic as the rest of his creations. The exhibition is a culmination of four-five years of work, inspired by the notes in these very sheets. One sketchbook is filled with drawings of streams running through the Niyamgiri range, that’s home to the Dongria Kondh community. In 2013, the tribe was in the limelight for unanimously voting against a project by the state government-owned Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) and Sterlite Industries, who wanted to mine bauxite in the hills.

Even though Roy builds his dialogues through references of local struggles and conflicts, he is keen that the viewer understands the need for broader consciousness. Through his work, he stresses upon the direct relationship between land and its people, and its immediate effect on one another.

A sketch of a man with a massive sack of rocks has his thoughts alongside, “My body carries three tons of dynamite. And they are the fuse. Last night, I exploded like the rocks…”

De-notified Land is ongoing at Project 88, Colaba, until May 18.

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