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Narratives on nature

Thursday, August 30, 2018

In the plethora of presentations at Max Mueller Bhavan's conference on the State of Nature in India, feminist interpretations of sacred and subaltern stood out for Ronita Torcato

In her presentation, ‘The Goddess Who Lost Her Body’ at the just concluded conference on the State of Nature in India organised by the Max Mueller Bhavan, the artist, photographer and thinker Sheba Chhachhi gave a feminist perspective of the feminine mythology of Indian rivers.

Chhachhi looks at the Yamuna through the lens of history and cultural memory, and notes that an abundant, active symbology of water is articulated within multi-cultural Delhi, with the "conceptualisation of water ranging from the meteorological to the mythic, the religious to the mercantile." Why then is the body of the Goddess Yamuna, the river itself, choked with filth? (As with the sacred cow, contradictions of abandonment and adoration manifest in India.)

The answer perhaps lies in the ritual purity and pollution which plays an important role in Hinduism. Pilgrimages, daily baths and love offerings to the rivers and their goddesses are the Hindu's ways of paying homage and maintaining purity.  Impure objects should, therefore, not contaminate the sacred waters, yet  devotees discard them into the rivers daily—the Yamuna River is the most polluted of them all.

Chhachhi raises important questions: "Does the deification of the mother/lover/river produce dereliction? Is it possible to recuperate images and stories and ways of being that could generate conservation and regeneration?"

 "Religion has not come to the rescue of the rivers, on the contrary, religious practices are a burden to the dying rivers," insists Himanshu Thakkar, India Coordinator for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP).

Again, Chhachhi posits a question: "Can we create a feminist ecological imaginary, reunite the Goddesses and their bodies?"

Land, forest, river, water, agriculture, village, occupation and food have been important sites for impositions of hierarchies of caste, says award-winning journalist, author, development professional and teacher Mukul Sharma who analysed the music and stories of  bonded labourers,  songs by Dalit women in  Jharkhand, writings by Dalit ideologues, leaders and  writers and myths, memories and metaphors of Dalits around nature.

Dr Sharma posits that caste and nature are intimately interwoven in India and views the interconnectedness from a Dalit lens to  explore Dalit experiences  of nature through their writings.  "When nature is entwined with fear and violence, horror and hardship, bloodbath and war; when caste dominates environmental experiences, then their experiences and expressions are distinctive and different."

He discussed the autobiography of Bama, the first Indian Tamil Dalit woman writer, who describes herself as ‘Karukku’, meaning Palmyra leaves with their serrated edges on both sides "like a double-edged sword challenging its oppressors. Her life of caste oppression within the Catholic Church was like that of ‘a bird whose wings had been clipped’ and her recovery from social and institutional betrayal felt ‘like a falcon that treads the air, high in the skies’".

Bama reminiscences about the mountain jungles and how she had to bribe the forester to allow her to collect firewood. "Twigs and thorns tore at her face. Sometimes, she started bleeding, or her hair got entangled in the branches. She had to push, shove and crawl through bushes and briars. There is a specificity of laboured nature, which is different from the universal question of accessing nature."

Nature, Prof. Sharma says, is entangled in the politics of belonging and alienation, exclusion and inclusion. "Through environmental ‘othering’, taboos, making dirt and filth an existential companion of certain communities, nature can become a medium and message of power, where caste and nature overlap. In the hands of the powerful, nature appropriates, dominates and subjugates spaces, places and identities." The pain of oppression is reflected in the songs and narratives of Dalit men and women.

Complex patterns

Nature abounds with complex patterns. What is the true nature of the world? This question, posed by JNU Prof Ram Ramaswamy, has dominated not only religion and spirituality, but "the landscape of physical sciences especially since it is quite evident that many descriptions of nature are only approximate."

Dr Ramaswamy was speaking on nature, matter and technology at the MMB which brought together artists, scientists, policy makers and thinkers for multi-disciplinary dialogues on nature.

"If the physical world is described by simple laws, why is it so difficult to predict the weather?" he queried. "A small change, very far away, can have huge consequences: The uncertainty can be very large and this is why such behaviour is called chaos...There are sights we can't see and sounds we can't hear. Are there thoughts we can't think?"

Dr Akeel Bilgrami, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University and Dr Bernd M Scherer, Director, Haus der Kulturen der Welt delivered the keynote addresses on the philosophical issues raised by naturalisation of humans in the current geological epoch or the new age of power over nature which is now being called by scientists ‘the Anthropocene’, or the “Age of Man”.

Conceptualised  with artist, writer and environmental crusader Ravi Aggarwal, the conference aimed to understand better these complexities, and also to offer a critique of the Anthropocene concept, through a focus on India.  Nature defies clear demarcation. It needs to be examined not only from historical, cultural, political perspectives, but also from the perspective of the non-human.

Wildlife science and conservation expert Janaki Lenin said 75% of animals who are moved out of their natural habitat die.  "In China, they decided to kill all the sparrows. When locusts devastated the crops, there were no sparrows to eat the locusts."

The ecological crisis is a key question of our times, and activist Himanshu Thakkar quoted an ideologue of the Central Water Commission as having said that "India cannot afford to have the luxury of water in the river when society's demands for water are not satisfied".

Speaking on languages and landscape, the poet Ranjit Hoskote warned that as local languages become endangered under the pressure of aggressively unitary 'regional' or 'national' languages, these nuanced vocabularies, attentive to season, species and climate, will vanish gradually, leaving no memory of what had once been India's flourishing ecosystem diversity.

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