A Face to face with pandemic: cultural reflections and expressions — by Navjot Altaf

Webinar organized by Navnirman Sanskritik Manch and Intercultural Resources Mumbai and New Delhi, India
July 4th 2020

Time like this, which has disrupted lives of almost all human beings in the world, where millions have succumbed to death and many more are still at a high risk of this virus and are vulnerable while dealing with the adverse, uncertain, anxious and stressful situations.

The thought that, what does it mean being – face to face with the pandemic, when viewed in different contexts, as we can see – varies, depending upon the situations people are in, except the fact that any human being around the globe, can be impacted by it for not being cautious in following the Covid protocols…But what happens when people are not fully aware? are suddenly informed and thrown into circumstances totally out of their control…Does the meaning of ‘being or remaining cautious’ gets subverted?

Despite being in my own environment in Bombay and able to take necessary precautions, it has not been possible to mentally isolate from the physicality or the visibility of the perpetuating trait of man-made asymmetries, which surged fourth once again in this unprecedented situation in the most horrific manner.
Prerequisites of the social or physical distancing was unfamiliar and a first time experience for everyone, so the urgency of being in quarantine that Corona demanded, needed to be conveyed and dealt with compassion.                                                                           If we look at the situation in our context, the quarantine and health care facilities offered to people in relief camps, or for the migrated population living in dense settlements in close proximities, lacked clarity and assurance prior to the sudden imposition of nation-wide lockdown [with 4 hours’ in hand] by the central government. It was carried out with a generalized and callous approach and with no proper logistics, sensitivity and concerns for this section of the citizens whose labour is vital for urban and all other economies, whose participation in building and maintaining the city infrastructures is indispensable.

The need of the hour was to provide psychological support, financial assurance that people needed, for them to be able to decide whether to stay-put where they were or to leave for their native homes as the Covid effected cases were very low at that time. Hurriedly suspended all forms of public transportation and economic activities by the authorities caused uncertainties and chaos. Millions had to struggle to reach their destinations on foot or whatever means they could manage. Many lost their lives on the way in the most tragic and humiliating conditions, which certainly could have been avoided if their existence and lives were valued as their votes are.  The turmoil in the lives of these destabilized millions has brought physical, mental and financial instability in a time already marked by hardship and unemployment. It is visible even after  months as rural economy has not been developed to assimilate them all, which has alienated them from the towns and cities they work and earn from and the villages they had to return to – without much prospect. Food package or a mere cash provided to them and to other under privileged population, certainly is not enough for three balanced meals required for a person to build up basic immunity to survive the virus and the work anxieties. Also many a time sanctioned quantity of food items do not reach certain areas or are not distributed systematically.

I am not surprised the way the whole thing has been handled because when it comes to the weaker section of the population, in most crisis, shortcomings of established behaviours and norms  of authorities surface up and the formulas  implied by them regardless of who and which party has been in power, is the same. They see this section’s existence and identities vital only in relation to electoral politics. We can openly see that it is a failure of governance because of the in-built structural infirmities within the political system and lack of political will… Whereas this was the time to put into practice what Modi’s public speeches claim. Is desh ki suvidhyen jo amiro ko prapat hai wo mere desh ke garib ko bhi milni chahiye,  jo samanya vyakti hawai chapel pahan kar ke ghumta hai, wo mujhe hawai jahaz me dikhna chahiye, ye mera sapna hai [The facilities in this country available to the rich should be available to the poor as well. I would like to see the common man who wears Hawaii slippers travelling by plane… this is my dream].

I hope that, this experience of this time makes the larger section of society more aware of the class relations, exploitation and alienation in capitalist economies, which continues to widen the asymmetries. No policies of basic financial support for a section of independent practitioners like artists have been discussed either.

Understanding the complexities of this moment from a larger historical and ecological perspective helps me face and deal with these alarmed times that we individually and collectively are passing through. Information and communication systems have an enormous impact and one can sense the fragilities of global economy, which makes me imagine – that a catastrophe of this scale at last will compel ‘us the people’ to collectively pressurize ruling governments world-over to recognize and get to the root causes of this pandemic and acknowledge the urgency to work towards – as Noam Chomsky points out, “…a new way of organizing society – one that conceives of a social and political order where profits are not above people”… and I would say  – not above people, not above other living organisms on earth either, as it is said ‘the earth itself makes demands on us to rethink of its species’.

I am simultaneously reminded of Vandana Shiva’s philosophy concerning ecology and the Earths democracy emphasizing why we must “acknowledge that we are part of the larger web of life that provides for our survival, therefore it is imperative that we protect that fragile web of life, not as dominators – men over women and humans over nature, but as partners with every other life form on the planet”. Have we not realized during quarantine the need to restrict – interference in nature, as it became quite visible and we could see and feel it claiming its lost sovereignty, which indicates how the human since centuries has preferred to remain blind, deaf and heartless towards its own saviour? The words from native wisdom… “Listen to the winds – it talks, listen to the silence – it speaks, and listen to your heart – it knows”, flash through my mind…as I examine my own inklings, and needs and think about, how to value these thoughts to be able to hold on and then continue to navigate them towards a larger conversation and practice.

My engagement with the indigenous and non-indigenous communities, struggling against coal mining and other hazardous industries in the Northern central part of Chhattisgarh has over a period exposed me to the environmental consequences faced by the large section of the local population. So I believe that a larger historical perspective and the questions, which environmental history, traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom in India or beyond have been raising over years, can help us understand the present pandemic and its relation with humans, warming the earth’s climate due to the burning of fossil fuel.

James Hansen a NASA scientist  was one of the first, who brought this fact to the world’s consciousness way back in the 1980’s. And  we can see, if we want to,  that the present health crisis is not isolated from the causes of global warming, manufactured by a development model adopted worldwide by an extreme capitalist system, which we have allowed ourselves to be in. In other words this virus is not due to external factors,  it has emerged  from within the economic system and due to the massive reduction of green cover and over use of other natural resources, resulting in huge loss of wildlife habitat for them to move in freely and bringing the wildlife closer to human areas, which have increased risks of transmission of the virus from one species to another. Despite ample high level research, if we notice, it is not widely and regularly discussed in relation to health crisis by the politicians or by the media, for people to become more conscious and alert, helping them think about this calamity scientifically and critically, as this could be a turning point in the history of mankind.

As expected, the focus has been solely on conquering the disease and finding the solutions in medicines, which no doubt is necessary –  but long term planning is possible only by acknowledging the fact that the speed at which the earth is abused and warming up, there would be worse health disasters than the present one. A strategic approach and active move forward to solve the problem should become the priority for every country to save the earth and humanity from further damage. This is the time our list of a new normal, aside taking the proper health protection to mitigate Corona and creating better public health care facilities for a safer future, should seriously include in the list,  a task of drawing more attention to climate injustice by collectively participating in the resistance for justice against those forces whose interest lies only in short term profits for the handful and at any cost. Hanson, whom I mentioned above, in his book ‘Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity’, conveys the urgency to acknowledge that …We are running out of time… This truly is our last chance.

In the context of cultural reflection and expression, I would like to share from a testimony of an Adivasi farmer Nirupma who on the basis of her lived experience, in my video film ‘Soul Breath Wind’ speaks on how her agricultural land, which has been forcibly acquired by SECL, while pointing to a Kusmunda coal mine at Barkuta village in Korba, where we stood, next to the remaining part of her house, she says, Yeh Akhiri hai, Dharti ke Kaleja ko Nikal diye hai, Yeh Akhiri hai. [This is the end; the soul of the soil has been removed… This is the end.] She understands that her land is not only her personal loss but loss of biodiversity as well.  The title of this video film, Soul Breath Wind is derived both from what Nirupma said, and from the philosophical perceptions such as “…the invisibility of the air is the soul of the visible landscape”… In ancient Greek, the word ‘psyche’ “signified not only the ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ but also ‘breath’ and ‘wind’”.  [Kagan,S. Art and Sustainability – Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity; Transaction Publishers, UK, 2011, pg.257] I really feel that even in the age of internet, it is important and possible to disseminate such philosophical thoughts or recent and historical information concerning epidemics and pandemics and how in the past, certain modern societies in the cities or people in the rural areas in the world managed to deal with such crisis in better ways compared to others. Television is an appropriate source, which is accessed by the maximum number of people even in the remote interiors where electricity has reached. Though what needs to be taken care of is that, most channels which can be accessed by the people in the interiors, consciously present a world view interpreted in a manner that engage with the complexities of the reality, which demands a multi-dimensional approach and in certain culture-based ways of interpreting knowledge, which makes  sense of living in harmony with nature. For example Indigenous communities inhabited for centuries in certain parts around the world have developed a relationship with the land, forests, water, animals and systems of being protectors through respect for other forms of life, what that society regards as a significant and gratifying life is articulated through their artistic expressions… the philosophy behind those songs and performances and visuals can be discussed on television or radio.

It is not to say that these cultures have not exploited local resources at all. But the impact on the environment has been maximum when insensitively intervened by those with sole interest in profit for themselves and with no regard for the ecosystem of those particular regions. Local communities resisting neoliberal mining power in Chhattisgarh call the corporate and government bodies as Ghuspethias / intruders and looters…

During this period I have also been reflecting on how crucial it is for the people in general to be aware about the ways in which knowledge or information is framed and the effects of these frames on the public, which shape up individual and collective viewpoints. We can see how certain tendencies and manifold beliefs and assumptions have re-surfaced in the critical times like now. Even though one acknowledges, independent news channels like NDTV and some fact checking web-sites or investigative outlets which encourage and invite critical perspectives but since they are in limited languages, it reaches only a small section of the society. On the other hand I have been thinking, about the way large number of people are using cell phones to reach out and remain connected, which is an achievement. How even the forms of political protests are explored and circulated by the protesters.  For instance during recent students’, CAA, NRC, NPR protests, [[CAA] Citizenship Amendment Act, [NPR] National Population Register and [NRC] National Register of Citizens] or unrest in Kashmir and other states or during pandemic, migrants could remain in touch with their families for financial help. But here too one has to be alert about the way it has become a device for the BJP to control; because the scale at which it is using social media for their propaganda is invincible.

While dealing with the pandemic, one is consciously participating in developing a culture of being responsible for oneself and for others to avoid transmission by maintaining a physical distance. Though experiencing life in this time of restrictions and being in-door, fortunately with the access to internet is an experience or is an episode in itself, what is making me restless, day by day is my freedom to move around, being amidst people I enjoy and like to engage with, which includes my world in Bastar as well and since the internet connections in rural areas are technically poor, my interaction with my colleagues and others in the interiors through phone also is unpredictable. For them access to the internet is not as simple, so their participation in debates is further reduced [not that they are often invited even in normal circumstances] even when issues concerning their lives or works or situations they are in are being discussed, as in this webinar.

I am sharing here with you all,  two of my works- one is an earlier work, – ‘Lacuna in Testimony’ done in 2003, and another, ‘Soul Breath Wind’ completed in 2018, I have chosen to show these works because both the works could not have been possible without my being with the people in their environment, which has entirely been impacted by man-made disasters.

Lacuna in Testimony, evolved after spending considerable periods of time in transit camps in Ahmedabad in 2002. The process of being permitted to be there in the camps, first produced moments of silent communication within myself and gradually into fragmented conversation between us, as I listened to their traumatic experiences they recalled from their memory or whatever had registered or not fully registered in their minds, what they had witnessed and lived through, individually, or collectively as a community. The question which repeatedly surfaced in my mind was – to what extent can I understand or feel their loss, can it ever be described even when I honestly seek to understand? Could I fully sense what they said? but gradually I felt that the threshold of the in-distinction between inside and outside, visible and invisible, said or unsaid  is where I saw connection…my being with them also made me think of the similar situations, previous historical events in India and beyond, which had left open – some holes and cracks one could peep in… After returning from Ahmedabad when I listened to those narratives repeatedly, I could also hear the sound of children playing outside the large room where I sat with the adults, which must have got recorded in the silent moments of the conversation between us. That’s the sound I have used with the video – these children perhaps articulated something, which may not be understood by the listener but can be sensed.

Testimonies can be heard on the headphones by those who want to…

Lacuna in Testimony: 2003
3 Channel video Installation
with 72 mirror pieces:
9:10 minutes

Lacuna in Testimony: 2003
3 Channel video Installation
with 72 mirror pieces
9:10 minutes

Lacuna in Testimony: 2003

Soul Breath Wind, addresses how systems of relationship are disrupted at almost all levels, in the absence of effective political will, lacuna in implication of law and rapidly increased culture of impunity in our political systems, which open up questions concerning what and who are we really caring for. This multi-projection video work has stemmed from my long research and building of contact with the local communities in Chhattisgarh, who speak of neglect of the laws pertaining to the scheduled areas and their struggle for justice against powerful forces, committing crime by increasing the vulnerability of ecosystems. As we can see, the appropriation of natural resources – human non-human alike, has been persisting in a big way under the pretext of progress. Progress through the model of economic development or developmental paradigm, which is being perpetuated by capitalism – resulting in the traumatic subversion of the ecosystem. By engaging with the people, affected by extraction of ores, fossil fuels, minerals and other industrial plants in the interiors in both South Bastar and northern central part of the state I could see how through their political resistance, people from more than 85 villages are confronting everyday socio-political and economic pressures, which are being imposed on them by the dominant forces, which in itself I feel is the evidence of the current ecological disaster. These ecological crisis implies also the loss of the sense of interconnectedness and of existing social networks.  The question they are asking  is ‘kiska vikas aur kaisa vikas’ [‘for whom and what kind of development is this’?]

These villagers are in favour of renewable resources- they want to save their fertile land to continue farming as they have seen the destruction of lives and communities in that region and other states who are in extremely helpless conditions. But because of their consistent and collective intervention, the NGT [National Green Tribunal] act was established in India in 2010. They constitute a community, not as something given but as the result of co-participation and dialogue. Community, in this sense, is a space for collaboration, feedback, and caring. It is in this space of exchange, I have witnessed the emergence of the processes of learning for life and I could sense better, why all modifications are not always favourable to the biosphere.

Soul Breath Wind: 2014-2018
3 channel video
60 minutes

Covid is giving us time and space to ask, aren’t we haunted enough by the consequences of our modifications? Has the field of economics acknowledged the fact that the impact of Covid-19 is internal and not external, created by humanity’s hierarchical relations with the planet? As I said before, if we want to return to some normalcy, our list of a new normal should have these queries on it and a will for a paradigm shift, as an anthropologist and social scientist, Gregory Bateson pointed out decades ago, “That is the paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology”. He wrote, “the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”.