To highlight Indian migrant labour crisis during COVID-19, two artists walk 360 km in Europe

One of the principal objectives of the project was to create an awareness in Europe and beyond on the current struggles faced by migrant labourers displaced after COVID-19 lockdowns in India, who have been walking inhuman distances to get to their villages

Nimish Sawant August 06, 2020 15:51:25 IST
To highlight Indian migrant labour crisis during COVID-19, two artists walk 360 km in Europe

Pankaj Tiwari, a 29-year-old Amsterdam-based artist, hailing from eastern Uttar Pradesh, reads out his poetry amid windy surroundings.

...The walk is not a desire,
It’s an urgency,
This urgency is not created by us.

The walk is a question,
Question of inequality,
Question of power,
Questions of privileges

The walk is a gesture,
The walk is solidarity,
The walk is being and standing together…

On 3 July, Pankaj along with his joint collaborator 35-year-old artist friend Abhishek Thapar, set out on a 360-km long walk from Dam Square in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Twelve days later, on the evening of 15 July, Pankaj and Abhishek, completed their performative walking art journey around the refugee camps of Calais in France. To mark the occasion, Pankaj cooked a meal for 25 migrants in Calais.

Like the rest of us in India, on 8 May, Pankaj also woke up to the shocking news of 16 migrant labourers being run over by a goods train near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Fourteen of them were killed on the spot. Desperately wanting to escape their fate in COVID-19-lockdown enforced cities, they were walking back to their home towns in Madhya Pradesh, along the railway tracks the previous night. After walking for 40 km, they were exhausted and decided to rest on the tracks, falling asleep and eventually, meeting their end.

In India, 400 million people are employed in the informal sectors which forms 90 percent of the workforce. Out of this, around 120 million are estimated to belong to the daily wager category who move from city to city in search of work. With most things being shut, movements restricted, public transport suspended, life had become desperate for many migrant labourers. A majority of them, who work on daily wages in big cities, hail from small villages anywhere from 400 to 2,200 km from their place of work. Lockdown meant that most of them had no work and no source of income. Procuring food was a challenge and so was maintaining social distance in their matchbox housing arrangements. Walking back homewards was the only desperate solution left for many, as public transport remained suspended and there was no money to pay for impromptu transporters charging upwards of Rs 1,000 per person.

Pankaj had been following the Indian news cycle on a daily basis while himself living under shelter-in-place restrictions in Amsterdam, where he is studying at the DAS Theatre Academy. Pankaj, who hails from North India, was shocked to see images and videos of people walking back home.

“I come from Balrampur in Eastern UP which is almost on the border of India and Nepal. Eastern UP is a land of migrants and most people there migrate to bigger cities to find work. I was deeply affected by the news of migrant labourers walking back home, but I didn’t know what I could do from here. I couldn’t even go to the squares here and protest because of the restrictions. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even sure what to protest about?,” reminisces Pankaj.

The images of rotis strewn around the tracks were heart-breaking and have been etched in the minds of many. It mirrored the absolute unpreparedness of the state and central governments when responding to the COVID-19 lockdowns, especially when it came to transporting migrant labourers back home safely. By mid-May, the story of migrant labourers walking back home had become a daily news item. Only towards the end of May did one start seeing enough Shramik trains to prevent this mass walking migration.

The birth of an art project to help families in need

Having read about the migrant situation in Europe and now this new development in India after COVID-19 lockdowns, Pankaj realised the only way he could help was through art. He conceptualised a live performance project.

Called The Art of Walking, this was a performative art project which Pankaj undertook with Abhishek. The idea was to walk the 360 km distance from Amsterdam to Calais over 12 days, covering between 28 and 36 km every day. The journey, which would involve walking through the interiors of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, was Pankaj and Abhishek's way to experience the fraction of the discomfort that was faced by many Indian migrant labourers back home. The larger objective was to create an awareness in Europe and beyond, on the current struggles faced by migrant labourers displaced after COVID-19 lockdowns in India, who have been walking inhuman distances to get to their villages.

To highlight Indian migrant labour crisis during COVID19 two artists walk 360 km in Europe

On being asked why he chose these two destinations in particular, Pankaj responded that Amsterdam was an obvious choice as that’s where he resided and Calais is a symbolic spot where many refugees or migrants are held back in camps, before they cross the channel to go to the UK. By walking from Amsterdam to Calais, Pankaj wanted to connect the migrant crisis in India to the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe. There was a common ground of dispossession, loss and homelessness in both instances.

To Pankaj, it was clear from the start that this wasn’t any activism but purely an art performance which wanted to question the context of Europe’s refugee response, Europe’s way of looking at art and its limits, while simultaneously highlighting the suffering of Indian migrant labourers due to government inaction.

As the inspiration for the art performance were the poor migrant families who walked long distances in India, Pankaj’s major aim with the art performance was to transfer over 80 percent of the proceeds collected during the duration of this project to some of those families. But he didn’t want the European audience to perceive this art performance as some charity and refused donations for the same.

“Before this project, I was once having a chat with a European friend who was impressed with the idea. She asked me to share the account number of an affected family, and she would transfer 2,000 Euros in their account. I refused to do that. This was her falling into the ‘white-saviour’ mode. I explained to her that I wasn’t looking for charity, I was performing this art walk and if she valued the art, which was inspired by the situation in India, then she could help finance it. Pay for the work, not as a charity,” Pankaj told his friend.

Two stories stood out for Pankaj from the many he was following. One was about the labourers being run over by train and the other was of a pregnant labourer who delivered along the way and then carried on walking for 150 km to reach home. Pankaj was also appalled by the way some police lathi-charged poor migrants who were trying to get home. But bringing these sufferings in the European context for people to care about it was going to be challenging. As Europe had its own run-ins with issues around migration, Pankaj decided to draw parallels between the two humanitarian situations by concluding his walk at a symbolic location — Calais.

Care they did, money has been raised

Thanks to Pankaj and Abhishek's theatre network in Amsterdam, around 10 theatre groups, theatre festivals and production houses in Europe came forward to raise upwards of 20,000 Euros for this art project when the proposal was shared with them. According to Pankaj, this was enough money to be able to take care of around 120 families in India, who had members walking back home. To help out the families, around 10-15 people who are on the ground have been identified, who will each manage 10 families and ensure these funds reach them. No NGO or government help is being sought. The idea is to take care of each family for at least four months.

Unlike most art performances which are inside a venue such as a theatre or a gallery, Pankaj’s outdoor walk which transcends three countries isn’t your traditional enclosed space. There isn’t a tangible audience to follow along on his journey throughout. Does the lack of a physical audience not bother the artists?

“Audience, at an abstract level, is a gaze for an actor. As a performer, if I can perceive that gaze even when there is no physical audience, I can perform without an audience,” opines Pankaj, telling me about one of his performances to an empty Sabarmati river patch in Ahmedabad. But while Pankaj may not be having a sustained audience physically with him, his reflections online have attracted a following.

While Pankaj did not actively tell people he came across on the way about his project, if anyone came forward he did inform them. Every day, thanks to the invested theatre groups and their networks, the artist duo were accompanied by some new artist or the other on the long walks. The conversations that Pankaj and Abhishek collected were shared online daily. While the reflections took the form of write-ups, photographs and videos, the majority of the art was distilled in the form of poetry. As an artist working with poetries, visuals, body and space, Pankaj said that even his prose came out in the form of poetry.

Pankaj was also sending photos from his trip to another theatre friend in India, Agat Sharma, who also penned a few poems for this project as it was going on.

Pankaj had been penning down his thoughts in Hindi in his diary, which he plans to share online soon. Here’s the complete playlist of the poetries shared during the 12-day art walk performance. It touches on themes as varied as home, belonging, power, politics, solidarity, migration and much more.

Firstpost had reached out to Pankaj over a WhatsApp call, and we could hear howling wind sounds in the background, which also interfered with our conversation.

“Technically speaking, it’s supposed to be summer in Europe. But so far, we have experienced winds at the speed of 45 kph, heavy rainfall and bad weather conditions. Of course, this is not even a fraction of the discomfort the migrant labourers in India must have faced, as they were walking back home,” Pankaj had said on the seventh day of the walk. There were a few days when his partner Abhishek had to take medicines to keep away from fever. Pankaj himself abandoned the shoes which were given to him by a friend and chose to walk from the sixth day onwards in his sandals, thus exposing his feet to the cold weather. While they would find some host or the other daily to retire for the night, there was one day when Pankaj and Abhishek had to pitch a tent. As nature would have it, it rained non-stop on that very night making the tent unusable for the next few days. There were discomforts the artists faced, but at no point did Pankaj try to compare them with the situation of the Indian migrant labourers. But at his level, Pankaj still has had to deal with the ‘migrant’ tag.

On an arts scholarship in Europe, but still called a “migrant artist”

Pankaj is studying on a scholarship in DAS, Amsterdam. He has even set up a community space in Abhishek's studio there called Current, where he collaborates with artists from around the world, curates performances and cooks food. Current has received funding from Amsterdam Funds for the Arts as well. But when he recently got invited to an arts festival in the UK, he was slotted under the term “migrant artist”.

“It got me thinking, I come from India, which is considered to be a land of migrants. Here I am in Europe, on a scholarship. But I am still a ‘migrant artist’. I started wondering about the migrant labourers and even though my situation is much better than the labourers who were walking back home, I am still carrying the ‘migrant’ tag. I started wondering what does it mean to be a ‘migrant artist’ and a ‘migrant labourer’? And how does Europe deal with all these terms and related issues,” Pankaj reminisces. He wasn’t able to go to that arts festival as he needed a UK Visa which he had to arrange himself. It brought to the front the hypocrisy that a country wanted to invite a ‘migrant artist’ but expected the artist to take care of all the formalities (involving a sum of 200 Euros for the Visa) necessary to even enter the country which invited him.

“Everyone talks of a level playing field. But at the end of the day, in many instances, if you don’t check certain boxes, you aren’t treated at the same equal level as the others,” Pankaj said.

To highlight Indian migrant labour crisis during COVID19 two artists walk 360 km in Europe

Pankaj Tiwari (blue shirt) and Abhishek Thapar (green shirt) at one of their hosts'

This is something that also prompted him to select Calais as the end point of his performative project. The refugees held back at Calais also can’t move on to the UK, as they don’t have certain papers or documents. Pankaj said, just like the refugees, he also cannot go to the UK despite being invited by an arts festival there.

“But at Calais, I can meet the migrants, and we can both see beyond the water body, where there are possibilities and impossibilities,” said Pankaj, a few days before reaching Calais. To put their journey in context, it was a fourth of the distance this woman covered with her child, when travelling from Gujarat to Uttar Pradesh. It is stories like these that Pankaj and Abhishek have also highlighted in their poetries.

On reaching Calais on 15 July, the artist duo was worried about how they would be received by the police and if they would be allowed to cook. Pankaj did manage to cook and eat together with around 40 migrants, an experience he describes as more impulsive than organised. Abhishek also learned from one of the migrants that some people were stuck in Calais for as long as four months. One being asked by the migrants if he felt that was a long time, Abhishek had no answer.

“European version of India is unfamiliar to me and my generation”

The other major motivator behind the Art of Walking project was to try to present contemporary realities from India to Europeans. Since migration is a topic that has an immediate context in Europe, Pankaj decided to amalgamate the two issues which are, in a way, similar at some level — a certain segment of society always having to battle with the concept of home and belonging.

Having lived around nine months in Amsterdam, Pankaj realised that India’s issues were not that well known in Europe.

“The problem is a lot of the Indian issues don’t make it to the mainstream media here. For instance, when the anti-CAA protests were happening earlier this year, unless you were actively following Indian news, no one here really knew about it. Another thing is that people who represent India outside, also don’t spend time on those issues,” says Pankaj. Along with a few Indian artists, Pankaj says he organised and participated in close to 20 CAA-related protests in Amsterdam, one of which took place outside the International Court of Justice at The Hague. But apart from managing to gather around 500 or so participants, these protests didn’t really cause much of a dent in the conversations around India in Europe.

“The India they (Europeans) know is different from the India our generation knows. But as artists, we have to keep at it. Through this Art of Walking performance, a lot of people will have questions and that will create awareness among them. I don’t see any point in pandering to curiosities on concepts like spirituality, etc. Now, I have my space and I will use it to highlight issues that affect my generation,” says Pankaj, recalling an amusing conversation around cows which he had with one of his hosts recently on the walk.

12-years in India - little recognition; 9 months in Europe - immediate acknowledgement

While Pankaj was in a pleasant mood throughout Firstpost’s phone conversation with him, there were certain issues which brought out some anger. Pankaj was angry at the cultural class and exclusivity that’s associated with arts such as theatre in India, which barely lets someone like him acquire meaningful recognition.

State funding for arts is definitely an issue in India, feels Pankaj, but more than that it’s the ‘clique-y’ nature of the theatre scene that is more alarming. “It’s the gatekeepers of theatre and arts in India that are the problem. Anyone who doesn’t belong — institution-wise or class-wise or lobby-wise — has no space to grow. Either such artists abandon theatre or compromise on their dreams for survival,” said Pankaj. He feels that even alternate festivals end up inviting only a select few theatre artists or groups, most of them from the metros, thereby leaving out the more experimental ones.

Just to get a space to practice theatre, Pankaj said he enrolled for around five masters programs out of which he only seriously completed two. ‘‘Since I am not from a class that can support theatre, I kept hopping between universities in search of rehearsal spaces. Masters was just a means to pass time. The main objective was to use the resources at these institutes,” says Pankaj unapologetically. He has also been the founder of several community spaces such as the Sabarmati Cafe & Theatre and Meraki’s Kitchen & Theatre.

“Somehow, somebody saw my work and I was informed about DAS Theatre Academy, Amsterdam. I applied and got selected in the second round,” summarises Pankaj on how he reached Amsterdam from India.

The contrast becomes stark when Pankaj goes on to narrate with a noticeable pride in his voice about his appointment as a curator at one of the top theatre names in Zurich, Switzerland, within nine months of coming to Amsterdam.

“In Europe, things are moving really fast. I have been invited to be in the program board for Gessnerallee, one of the top theatre groups in Zurich, Switzerland. I will be working with them for the next four years and will be curating one season each year. I am in a much stronger position in the theatre space which I couldn’t achieve in India. I can decide which works I want to invite,” Pankaj says, adding that he would try his best to highlight voices that don’t get much exposure in India because they aren’t English-speaking or don’t have the backing to make it in this mercurial space.

The fact that he was able to raise 20,000 Euros within a matter of months for the families makes Pankaj feel confident that his experimental practices have a scope to make an impact in the society. He was impressed with the state support for art in Europe. But at the same time, in the European context, he wants to make performance art more approachable.

“Art has become so exclusive in Europe. For instance, if we look at the theatres, who do you think comes here? Well-dressed people who wine and dine after the performance can afford this art, not the regular populace. I feel this creates a distance between art and the audience. Art has to come out of the theatres. For me, this art walk is a pure performance which talks about issues and does something about it,” says Pankaj reiterating that he does not want to call his Art of Walking project any sort of activism. He says he has done his fair share of activism in India for seven-eight years and it’s very common for Indian artists to be slotted under ‘activist’ bucket in Europe, something he wants to steer clear of.

“I always say that I have shifted from being a revolutionary activist to a practical dreamer,” Pankaj says tongue firmly in cheek.

To follow the journey Pankaj and Abhishek undertook from 3-15 July head here: Performing Borders

On 19 September, Pankaj and Abhishek also plan to host a lecture-performance based on their reflections and documentations during the Art of Walking journey, at the Gessnerallee, Zurich. This is to be followed by future performances at the Spring Festival in Utrecht in The Netherlands and the HAU Theatre in Berlin, Germany, in 2021.

— Banner image: Pankaj Tiwari (light blue jacket) and Abhishek Thapar somewhere in the Netherlands

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