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Water as Witness

“Our correspondence relied on hope. We live on either shores of the Arabian Sea, and its waters played the role of a messenger, ferrying our communication back and forth. We chose the sea probably because in every rolling of its waves, our words and aspirations would be polished and they would gleam, pearl-like, eventually when they reached the shore. The sea became our friend. It bore witness to what emerged from these conversations. The sea would often send along with our messages gifts of shells. We saved these as the only physical evidence of our interactions. Some fishes travelled all the way from shore to shore, eager to see how each of us responded to the other’s notes. The messages always arrived in low tide, only to be washed away when the tide rose—giving us the time to decrypt the post, and the assurance that they would be washed away, leaving no evidence for prying eyes. We stood and gazed out to the East and to the West, across the Sea, awaiting the message that the waters would bring for us.”

Water has several attributes. Apart from the physical and scientific properties of the fluid, those that triggered the imagination of writers, thinkers and even entire cultures, have left behind today an understanding, or at least images of water and water bodies as free moving sources of life and energy. Several cultures have deified and worshipped water in its various forms—whether as Calypso or as the Ganges, the force and potency of water has been readily acknowledged even before the advent of modern science. The representation of water in art has also in many ways mirrored the prevalent thoughts of the times in which those works were created. From the allegorical figures of the four rivers in Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of Four Rivers, 1651), to the unfathomable expanse of ocean in Caspar David Friedrich’s atmospheric Monk by the Sea (1810), and closer home to the deification of rivers and rains in traditional Indian manuscript and courtly paintings, one gets a glimpse into the complex ways in which the human race has established relationships with water.

When re-imagining the role of water bodies, as more than repositories of resources, one tends to consider how with the ownership that humankind has staked upon the earth, every movement of the race has left behind evidence. Colonising resources is a distinctly human activity. Exploitation of water bodies and the practice of using them as a dumping ground, has turned them into museums of waste, in a manner of saying. Water in this sense, can be seen as an archive—a repository of the motions of humankind and on the earth over millennia. Trade routes across the oceans have led to the spread of cultures and commerce. For instance, the oceanic silk route and the connections between the South Asian and Far East Asian cultures through the ancient to medieval times allowed for the generation of commonalities that exist to date. The infrastructures of water bodies allows for them to act as archives of the past and as informants of the future. What submarine reserves will our time leave behind? What fossils of our generations will be trawled from the ocean floor? Water bodies as sites of constant discovery become sources of joy as well as alarm bells sounding a grim wake up call. The imminent threat of melting glaciers translates at an alarmingly increasing pace, year after year, into the reality of rising water levels. Depleting submarine oil and gas reserves are telling tales of the pressures accumulated by the human race upon the earth. The desire to accomplish the impossible has let to building upon water—reclamation, despite the obvious anthropocentric nature of the word, has made extensions into the sea not just a possibility but today also a viable construction alternative to ease the burdens of population density in overcrowded coastal cities. This reminds one of an instance in 2018, when the Arabian Sea spewed garbage out onto Mumbai’s coastline. The sea’s inability to digest the leftovers of human consumption resulted in the regurgitation of the trash, in effect causing tons of trash to be deposited on the Juhu shore. Comparing this visual to the works by Varunika Saraf, titled Low Tide (2013-2015), one wonders whether the shores in a span of say a century to come, will ever be a sight worth beholding. What the shores show are probably just a miniscule fraction of what lies further deep. Despite several attempts and awareness campaigns, the acknowledgement of the finite nature of natural resources somehow seems to be lacking in several quarters. As our relation with the Oceans get increasingly complex (and sometimes dismal)—India’s rejection of the United Nations Resolution in 2017, which required nations to set targets on cutting down plastic usage, came in the face of the fact that the Indus and Gangetic river systems are among the ten that account for up to ninety percent of global plastic input into the sea.

(Varunika Saraf, Low Tide: Meditations on Loss and Longing, 2013-2015, Watercolor on paper. Image courtesy: Varunika Saraf, and Gallery Ark, Vadodara)

While construction might be milestones of advancement, the division of waters is another subject that raises several questions. Creating physical barriers in the waters of oceans might seem an impossible task, but political boundaries with no evident, physical markers are impactful and set the plot for several narratives. One can question, if it is only water, at the end of the day that is actually free to do as it pleases—travel from shore to shore without being stopped and held. Movement across international waters is not possible without leaving behind footprints. Fishermen unable to identify where domestic waters end and the sea becomes the hostile territory are for instance, unfortunate victims of the exercise of dividing water. Fazal Rizvi’s Fluid Frontiers (2016) presents a drawn documentation of objects that were found washed ashore or floating on the Arabian Sea. The narratives that further the relevance of these objects may be imagined, but the contents of the work are deeply rooted in the existing history of the troubled maritime borders between India and Pakistan.

(Fazal Rizvi, Fluid Frontiers, Museum of Speculated Objects, 2016, Image courtesy: Fazal Rizvi)

The past and current editions of the Venice Biennale (La Biennale di Venezia) have each showcased two examples of water/the ocean as a site. The first example is from the 2017 edition of the Biennale Damien Hirst’s fantastical and larger than life work titled, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (2017) was an act of storytelling that incorporated several mediums and was built on a seemingly high production budget typical one would say, of Hirst’s flair for extravagance. Installed at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, the work exaggerates the idea of discovery and the element of awe and wonder, while simultaneously serving as an example of the colonial trends of loot and conquest. While the narrative relies on a story of a freed slave amassing a hoard of collectibles and eventually losing them to the depths of the ocean after a shipwreck, makes for an interesting sub text, the entire history of oceanic trade is pock-marked with countless episodes of ships ferrying plundered wealth and trafficked slaves meeting the same fate as the mythic “Unbelievable.” The second example is from the 2019 edition of the Biennale. Visitors to the Biennale were confronted by the wreck of a fishing boat which in 2015 capsized on its way to Europe from Libya, resulting in the death of around thousand men, women and children. The work in itself was positioned as “a relic of human tragedy,” but one begs to ask if there truly are limits to artistic license. If provocation was the aim, then the target was not missed. But if this shipwreck aimed for response and reflection, parking a site of fresh tragedy at an exhibition is comparable to shooting bullets in the dark. Movement across waters over millennia has made the oceans a site that determines human fate. It takes persistent questioning to generate answers as to who takes responsibility and to what extent, of the lives at stake once they are at sea, and where does one find sanctuary for crossing an invisible boundary. This questioning becomes ever more interesting at this juncture, especially when one looks at the geographical location of Venice, its reliance on water bodies for the buoyancy of its economy, and the political stance of the city port in the light of the restricted entry for migrants seeking sanctuary.

(Sarasija Subramanian, Sea Monsters/Bred in Captivity, 2017, Inagh Valley, Ireland, Digitized drawings and archival print on paper, Image courtesy: Sarasija Subramanian)

Moving beyond the terrestrial domain to picture a future drawn from the ocean and its infrastructures, it is worthwhile to ponder over legends that have emerged from the seas. From stories about sirens and mermaids luring sailors into the dark abyss to monsters that haunt lakes, several tales have been keenly drafted over millennia (probably as warnings to sea farers to be wary on the course of their journeys?). Exercising control is a human trait—and so is taming by extension. Human explorations into the marine territory in order to “tame” water and its inhabitants by means of cultivation that mimic natural systems could be an acknowledgement of the fact that the need for space will expand itself even faster that imagined into the water. But such statements are highly contestable and merely speculative. For how long our relation with water remains as one of the provider and the seeker before its turns into that of the exploiter and exploited is a question only time can answer. The monsoons of the last two years, for instance, have left their mark with floods causing severe damage to life and society. One wonders at this time if it is possible to ever be completely prepared for the time when the forces of nature—in this case rains and floodwaters—come to reclaim what of it humankind has colonised. In the meantime, how the role and scope of water is questioned, reviewed, and reimagined is what could serve as grounds for investigations and forays into sustainable and responsible development strategies. Sarasija Subramanian, as a part of her residency at Interface, Inagh Valley, Ireland, documented and re-contextualised cultured coral. Algae, coral and barnacles in these prints are specimens that have been domesticated. The works question the synapses between the tamer and the tamed and how in the process of taming, identities may be lost, and personalities may be altered. The works interrogate how altered cultural shifts and borders can be studied in a scaled down sample, illustrating how the creature bred in captivity is so removed from its natural habitat, but again, will never miss home.

The human dependence on water as a nourisher has slowly, over centuries, put undue pressure on the valuable resource. With levels rising, and the existing waters becoming less usable, it is time to introspect and try to redefine this relationship. At what point must a line be drawn? But then again, how permanent are lines drawn on water?

“I look again now, from a different shore. But this time my view is obstructed by shorefront luxury apartments. Will your messages reach me? I can’t see you from across the sea—I cannot even see much of the sea.”



Kadamboor Neeraj is in the Final Year of his Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Art (Painting) from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Baroda. He has been a contributor to the first edition of Write | Art | Connect. Neeraj runs his own blog—The Indian Art Student, where he writes about the goings on and his experiences in school, along with contributions from his friends. He has contributed to the Indian Contemporary Art Journal, and ‘Chihna’, an annual journal published by the Gauhati Artists’ Guild.


Header Image: Sarasija Subramanian, “The Moon’s Right at the Edge of the Sea”, Digital prints, 2017.