It’s in their nature: Artists hold event for environment

Heena | Apr 12, 2017

The ‘witnesses’ were artists Navjot Altaf, Ravi Agarwal and Sheba Chhachhi, who presented ‘evidence’ in the form of artworks which were examined and cross-examined by the lawyers.mock trial A still from Zuleikha Chaudhari directed play ‘Landscape as Evidence: Artists as Witness’ where Senior Advocate Anand Grover cross-examines Artist Ravi Agarwal. The staged hearing in the mock court trial room was heard by Justice Yatindra Singh. – B B Yadav

Can artists succeed where activists have failed? Environmentalists and animals rights activists have not got very far with opposing development projects such as the Ken-Betwa river-linking project which threaten to damage ecologically-sensitive areas, but a unique theatre project held in the capital this weekend tried to see whether art could work any better.

This was a  staged‘mock trial’ named ‘Landscape as Evidence: Artist as Witness’ with participation by ‘real’lawyers – Norma Alvares and Anand Grover – and a ‘real’, albeit retired, judge – Justice Yatindra Singh, the former Chief Justice of Chattisgarh High Court. The  ‘witnesses’ were artists Navjot Altaf, Ravi Agarwal and Sheba Chhachhi who presented ‘evidence’in the form of artworks which were examined and cross-examined by the lawyers .

Agarwal who besides being an artist, also runs e-waste NGO Toxics Link, presented video-clips from an earlier art work called ‘Have you seen the flowers?’ about the farmers who cultivate marigold flowers on the banks of the Yamuna. This had been their livelihood, said Agarwal, for hundreds of years and they couldn’t just be asked to relocate.

The project, supported by Khoj International Artists’ Association, also had Navjot Altaf showing a video clip of a man in Chattisgarh speaking about the problems of mining in the region. There was a police case against almost everyone in the region, he said, and if the situation did not improve, they too would be forced to follow the Naxals.

Artist Sheba Chhachhi’s ‘evidence’ was a clip of her work ‘Neelkanth’ which showed how environment degradation and garbage were affecting lives in Delhi.

Delhi-based theatre director Zuleikha Chaudhari, who conceived ‘Landscape as Evidence: Artist as Witness’, said the production subtly pointed to the Ken-Betwa river linking project which aimed to transfer water from the Ken river basin in Madhya Pradesh to the Betwa river basin in Bundelkhand. The project has received the nod from several departments including the green panel and is waiting for the approval from Forest ministry. “Such projects are more about people in power and those without power are sacrificed at the altar of development,” says Agarwal.

What about development, was a question repeatedly raised by senior advocate Grover who represented the government position in this mock trial. “It is something that is often asked. But when you have to dislocate people, it is important to know where they are going. I am a votary of the artists’ position, but I knew it would be difficult to play my part, so I chose it. It is difficult to be state’s counsel, to defend the indefensible,” said Grover who admits to being fond of theatre.

The artists also asked whether rehabilitation only meant land for land, and what of society, culture, language and environment. Even on the matter of rehabilitation, the government had a poor record, as Justice Singh pointed out in his verdict.

How ironical, then, that Justice Singh was forced to rule in favour of the government and against the artists –  the latters arguments and evidence were just not strong enough, he said.