When the Artist is a Farmer-Environmentalist!
Vadodara, October 1, 2022
Shweta Bhattad is an artist with a huge difference! Ever since she was a student of Sculpture at the Fine Arts Faculty, Baroda, Shweta’s fascination with food – its cultivation, consumption, presentation, nutrition, wastage, starvation, and overeating resulting in ill-health – has intrinsically informed her sculptural and performance art projects over more than a decade.
But her main concern with food is with the multi-pronged sustenance it offers – not just to the person (or animal/bird/insect) who eats it, but also to the communities that cultivate it and bring it to the market, and continue to propagate it.
Around 2013-14, Shweta, a native of Nagpur, moved to her ancestral home and farm in village Paradsingha almost on the border in southern Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, a few miles north of Nagpur. Here, she began her life as an artist-farmer-environmentalist, along with her collective of 14 like-minded members (though not all of them were trained artists). It was not an easy decision.
The collective began to proactively mobilize local villagers, create awareness about causes for farmers’ suicides, loss of farmer’s control over land, water and cattle, and being tied to the perennial circle of poverty.
Then, they also started the annual Gram Dhara Chitra Utsav, generally held at the cusp of the end of summer and beginning of the monsoon. This attracted many young artists from across India to travel to Paradsingha and participate in the Utsav, creating art that responded to environmental issues. It convincingly proved that art with a mission need not be dull and didactic, and let esthetics go for a ride.
The Gram Dhara Chitra Utsav project received the Vadehra Gallery, Delhi’s FICA (Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art) Public Art Grant in 2015. This offered Shweta an opportunity to establish an on-going Gram Art Project in Paradsingha, initiating village-level income-generating activities, a major one of which is Functional Art.
Shweta mobilized groups of rural women and taught them how to make seed-embedded hand-made paper post-cards and seed-embedded rakhi-s with handspun cotton thread crocheted around the seed and as the tie-threads.
Once the products were past their use, they could be buried in soil either in a flower pot or directly in soft ground and watered as usual till the paper disintegrated, the seeds sprouted and grew into a plant that either flowered or fruited or did both. It was a wonderful multi-purpose product that continued to give pleasure for a long time than an ordinary rakhi or post-card would.
Then came the pandemic. And with it confusion and panic. Shweta Bhattad gave it a long, hard thought. And came up with an out-of-the-box idea. Literally!
In the first COVID year, amidst the fear and anxiety, illness and death, the Gram Art Project decided to organise Beej Parva 2020, focusing on festive celebrations, especially Deepavali, symbolized by bursting fire-crackers and consumption of sweets. Two cardboard magic boxes were expertly designed in which the Fire-crackers and Sweets were attractively presented. But these were Fire-crackers and Sweets with a difference – these fire-crackers would not light up brightly, burn noisily, or release bundles of putrid smoke. Lying innocently on a bed of confetti, the seven popular fire crackers – rocket, suthli bomb, anar, lal ladi, tiklya, chakri, and fataka – were ‘sculptured’ or presented exactly as their original counterparts.
Instead of being made by exploited children from marginalized communities, feared by animals and birds, shunned by the ill and elderly, these Crackers were now Hatchers – embedded with seeds of microgreens (lal ladi), coriander (tikli), roselle (fataka), onion (chakri), golden shower/red and green amaranthus (anar), dill/ Bauhina racemosa (suthli bomb), cucumber (rocket). Each Fire-cracker, when sown properly and watered, would sprout, offering a source of nourishment and healthy embrace for all life on earth.
The other box, the Seed-Sweets, was mouth-wateringly presented – very realistic looking barfi, cookies, chamcham, laddu, with a delicate layer of silver varaq decorating the surface. But unlike the real sweets that actually hid a bitter truth under their luscious, silky flavours – exploitation of sugarcane and palm oil plantation workers, of turning bio-diverse forested areas into mono-cultures, driving out the native animals, birds and insects that reside there – these sweets were actually seed-balls. They contained seeds of tomato/radish (laddu), brinjal/purslane (cookies), carrot/chilli (chamcham), okra/amaranthus (barfi).
The boxes were a hit and they sold well to create critical festive earnings for the village women who made them. Each box was accompanied by an instructive note, concisely written, reflecting the thinking that has gone into choosing the seeds for each firework/ sweet. For instance, the suthli bomb, often known as Laxmi bomb, which makes an explosivesound that can unpleasantly startle, had seeds of the Bauhina racemosa or Sonapatti, literally leaves of gold that signify Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth and had medicinal properties to relieve headache, fever, skin and blood ailments!
The Seed-Sweets were a statement on faulty agricultural policies and practices that affect bio-diversity, fertility of the soil, groundwater use, effect on cattle and milk yield, corporatization of farmlands.
This year, unfortunately, Paradsingha along with vast swathes of fertile land in the neighbouring areas were mercilessly pounded by weeks of continuous rains in the monsoon, flooding entire villages and nearby small towns, causing loss of life, damage to property, knocking off fields upon fields of standing crop. The villagers are just about recovering from the losses they have suffered.
Gram Art Project is doing their bit in trying to help the village women in earning as much as they can by making the Hatcher and Seed Boxes once again this year for Deepavali gifting. The work is in full swing as the women making them hope for good earnings this Deepavali as well. In 2020, they sold out the 3000 Hatcher and 2000 Seed Boxes that they made. Last year they made only 5000 HatcherBoxes which were again a sold out. This year, the women are aiming at making 10,000 Hatcher Boxes and 5000 Seed Boxes. These are now available in different sizes so that they become accessible to more people.
These very affordable Gram Art can be used to decorate the home during festive times and later planted to enjoy the fruits. They are a source of delight and surprise for their creativity, the unusual way in which they effectively communicate their message, and out-of-the-box thinking.
For more information and placing orders, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 93731-12912, or write to Gram Art Project, At and Post Paradsingha, Tehsil: Sausar, Dist.: Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh 480108.
All photos courtesy of Gram Art Project, Paradsingha.
Sandhya Bordewekar writes on contemporary art, architecture, heritage, food and life in general.