Thukral and Tagra's new exhibition presents sharp comment on Punjab's farmer distress, NRI culture

  • Farmer is a Wrestler takes a look at both the dire situation of farmers in Punjab — many of whom commit suicide — and the greed of people who want to settle abroad.

  • Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra built their exhibition after having visited the homes of farmers who had committed suicide.

  • The inauguration of the exhibition featured performances by Dhadi singer Lekhraj Lachkani. Visitors were offered simple food — the meal consumed by farmers.

When Jiten Thukral met Sumir Tagra in 1997 at the Government College of Art, Chandigarh, they were sure of one thing — their art would be rooted in the local culture. Hailing from Punjab, these collaborative artists delve into their personal histories and memories to address socio-cultural changes, most visible in their home state. Upon visiting the duo, many questions come to one's mind: How do they synchronise their dreams, thoughts and expressions? Who finds the metaphors, and how are they executed?

While their art may have earned tags such as 'irreverent', 'playful', 'unconventional', 'kitschy', 'bordering on pop-art', and 'blurring the lines between art and design', the underlying theme of their work is the concerns of the Punjabi society: the aspirations of the youth who escape to unknown dreamlands, their deserted wives, the unoccupied, ostentatious baroque kothis of the NRIs, and the harsh reality of farmers’ distress and the growing number of suicides.

“We are not experts, we don’t know what a farmer goes through... the questions raised are an artistic enquiry,” the artists say at the inauguration of their exhibition Farmer is a Wrestler at the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, Chandigarh, on 20 February. The artists may not be farmers, but they did research the subject for over a decade, studying reports prepared by multiple NGOs, which state that the number of farmer suicides across the country may be 80 thousand to two lakh.

The Baru Sahib Academy, Himachal Pradesh, interviewed families of farmers who committed suicide in Punjab seven years ago. The artist duo decided that they would visit eight villages from the Sangrur district in Punjab, where suicide cases among cotton growers have been high, and about a dozen from Haryana. But on visiting the homes of the farmers, they couldn’t utter a word, and their cameras lay unused. In one village, they came across three generations of a farming family who had committed suicide.

“We were not allowed to waste food at home... Today, you order food from Zomato by pressing a button with no understanding of where the food comes from, where it grows, the process and the chain,” says Thukral. Those who migrate leave behind people and homes in much the same way that urban people consume food and leave behind the waste, without concern. The artists’ recurring motif of the ‘escape’ through visas among the Punjabis, as an expression of high aspirations, has expanded into related issues since they first addressed it in 2007. The issue of farmers’ suicides has occupied their thoughts for about 15 years, during which they joined the dots of the complex issue of migration and embarked on a quest for the right metaphors.

“This time, we are looking at this phenomenon from the other side of the table — of the people left behind,” adds Tagra. The exhibition is divided into three sections, beginning with a reality check. The entire space in this section is filled with 265 A-4-size papers — pages from the Swaninathan Commission Report (Serving Farmers and Saving Farming - 2004), whose recommendations have not been implemented despite growing farmer distress. The legal papers are used as a sketch book by the artists. This section also has a 23-minute documentary shot by the artists during the Kisan Mukti March of 29 November in New Delhi, in which close to 1.5 lakh farmers participated to voice their desperation. The film, which is composed of several enduring images, like the one where a farmer from Telangana holds skulls of farmers whose lives were lost to suicide, was shot on a mobile phone camera.

This section leads to a display of several works, mostly oil on canvas, related to the interpretation of reality. These are titled Distress Mathematics. Unlike the artists' signature vibrant colour palette, these works have a lot of white space, with prominent mathematical signs that invite the viewer to find their own interpretation of reality, including the variables of gender, caste, religion etc. “The project is an inquiry, the idea is to raise awareness. There are no answers here, only questions and a lot of unfinished space — a lot of in-between-ness. The viewer can decide or be in the in-between space,” adds Thukral.

 Thukral and Tagras new exhibition presents sharp comment on Punjabs farmer distress, NRI culture

Thukral and Tagra with the Swaminathan report in the background

The figure of a farmer, made of frost, with a crack in its form and slightly disfigured, is titled Swatantur, with an ironic twist. Swatantur (which means 'free'), one of Tagra's relatives, has been so obsessed with “foreign” that he married his daughter off to an NRI. His daughter had to be rescued by the police after days of being locked up and tortured and kept hungry. Yet, Swatantur didn’t let her return home because he wants to make annual foreign trips and wants his other daughters and sons to be settled "abroad". The motif of the table, used by the artists in their previous works, returns in this show. Here, the table, on top of which is a cloth, is shown with a bubble under it. The bubble is inspired by the trucks, over-stuffed with husk, and the table cloth hides textbooks used to teach in Punjab — books whose pages are filled with misinformation.

Clockwise from above left: Swatantur; The Mathematical Equations; Bubble Under the Table. All photos courtesy the writer

Clockwise from above left: Swatantur; The Mathematical Equations; Bubble Under the Table. All photos courtesy the writer

The metaphor of a wrestler for a farmer comes alive in a short feature film, shot live in an akhara at Jalandhar. The wrestlers are not wrestling but playing musical chairs; their chairs are removed by a white man — the visa-issuing master of their destiny. The winner will get the girl, who, after her marriage to the NRI, is still ironing clothes — her status that of an unpaid servant in a foreign land.

The inauguration of the exhibition Farmer is a Wrestler featured performances by Dhadi singer Lekhraj Lachkani and others, who sang songs of farmer distress. The visitors were offered organic makki ki roti, saag, ghee and shakkar, a reminder of the last man in the food chain — the farmer, on the verge of collapse.

The exhibition will travel to Yorkshire and London, later in March. It is on view at the Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi till 5 March

All pictures and video by the author

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Updated Date: Mar 01, 2019 14:46:34 IST