The great Konkani laureate Balakrishna Bhagwant (Bakibab) Borkar once sought to explain why his tiny homeland of Goa has produced so many consequential artists. They range from the Hindustani classical vocalists Kesarbai Kerkar and Mogubai Kurdikar to the slew of jazz musicians – along with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle – who consolidated “the sound of Bollywood”, as well as essential modernist painters like Francis Newton Souza, Vasudeo Gaitonde, and his cherished friend, the Shantiniketan exemplar Angelo da Fonseca.
Borkar credited this disproportionate effloresence to “the significance of Goa’s natural beauty”. He said, “So comfortably set up in such a rich aesthetic setting, the Goan consciously and unconsciously absorbs Nature’s varied promptings through all the pores. In the festival of colours and shapes and sounds and smells and touches and tastes afforded by the nature that surrounds him, his angularities are rounded and his senses are continually sharpened. You may analyse any art form the Goan has produced, and you will soon realise that the aesthetic characteristics of Goa’s scenic beauty reveal themselves through it.”
Fast forward four decades, and a similar case is being made by hundreds of Borkar’s successors from Goa’s creative communities, in the remarkably innovative #MyMollem campaign to stop three potentially highly destructive projects that are slated to bulldoze through Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park in the Western Ghats section of India’s smallest state. This entirely millennial-driven movement has positioned art and culture right alongside its scientific and legal strategies. In the process, it is dramatically reinventing environmental activism for our multimedia-saturated 21st century.
In their eloquent, impassioned group letter to Prakash Javadekar, who is Narendra Modi’s environment minister, and to the all-important Central Empowered Committee, 249 signatories agreed, “It is our role as the artists, painters, illustrators, architects, writers, poets, photographers, filmmakers, dancers and sculptors of Goa to uphold, support, and protect our culture and we wish to impress on you how deeply embedded it is in the natural landscape of our state – urging us to speak strongly against the irreversible removal of any part of Goa’s natural beauty, and ensure the holistic protection of Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park.”
There were other missives in the same vein: from medical and nursing students, scientists, and tourism industry stakeholders. But this one – composed by 28-year-old artist Nishant Saldanha – made an unusually compelling case that is almost never emphasised in discussions about the environment. It argued, “What scientists call biophilia – the hormonal release and feeling of relaxation obtained from the joy of being in nature, that influences our mental health, our productivity and our economy – we call inspiration…to strike a blow to our natural heritage is to attack the wellspring of our creativity.”
The decision to foreground art in this ingenious manner is easily traced to 34-year-old Nandini Velho, the Panjim-born-and-raised X-factor in the #MyMollem leadership, who is one of the most acclaimed young wildlife biologists in the world, with extensive experience overseeing Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Pakke Tiger Reserve in the eastern Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh.
It was there, starting in 2015, that she first partnered with the Goan artist Anjora Noronha, to create the marvellous Eaglenest Memory Project, which collects “first-hand accounts of what is realized, recognized and experienced [to] reveal missing links [in] emotional and personal history” that is interlinked with the natural environment.
“To use Isaiah Berlin’s comparison, art makes us foxes when sometimes we have to be very hedgehog-like based on the scientific questions we have to address,” Velho said. “In terms of a grounded reality that I can now reflect upon from a decade of field work, doing science has given our team insights from the field that keep changing, but what is tangible and permanent has come from collaborations between residents, the forest department and artists. Whether it’s the nature interpretation centre, or bringing virtual reality into conservation education, and our art and science nature camps, or releasing the Eaglenest Memory Project, it has all happened because of artists.”
The young scientist described an epiphany she had with her sixty-something field assistant, Chamu Rai, in a period of data collection when “the team was really fed up”. The forest veteran “would tell me every day that this was his last day of work, and no matter what I would not be able to convince him to go and climb some more mountains for what he regarded as impractical purposes. But when I visited his house with Anjora, he was so excited, and opened up his wallet. On one side he had his Aadhar card, and on the other a bird-festival card she had designed. He said the latter was much more representative of him, compared to a unique number. I thought to myself: art includes, art emotes and art represents.”
Velho initiated the Mollem movement alongside 28-year-old Gabriella D’Cruz (who studied biodiversity conservation and management at Oxford) and 30-year-old artists Trisha Dias Sabir and Svabu Kohli. Her conviction is “the business and politics of nature conservation should no longer just be in courts, and conducted by environmental groups and scientists. These art-science or nature-culture dichotomies belong to a different era. Art creates a bridge that is understandable, relatable and has longer staying power. It conveys stillness and sense of place. In the last one year alone, the art for forests under threat including Mollem, Dehing-Patkai in Assam, Etalin in Arunachal Pradesh, and Vedanthangal in Tamil Nadu are some of the best forms of activism I have seen, and it makes me super hopeful.”
The torrent of heartfelt – and often outstanding – artworks generated and shared by the #MyMollem movement spans every genre. But many of the best, such as by Los Angeles-based animator Jayee Borcar, reference the graphic universe of comic books.
“To explain forest fragmentation, a group of three scientists and an architect wrote a seven-page brief and gave it to her, and she gave it back to us in one frame,” Velho said. “We zoomed into parts of it, and could have a full series that ran for two months on the science of fragmentation. [Borcar] not only got the colour of the Goan lateritic soil right, and brought many other things back home, but was able to convey the cumulative effects of this process in just a single image.”
These comments inevitably reminded me how the graphic novel genre in India was originally kickstarted by a book with identical motivations, and was conceived and executed to convey the messages of an environmental movement. Orijit Sen’s pathbreaking 1994 River of Stories grew out from the author’s participation in the Narmada Bachao Andolan struggle against the Sardar Sarover dam, which wound up displacing a million people across Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
Now a long-term resident of Goa, Sen told me, “Looking back, I think River of Stories had a kind of ripple effect over time. Initially, it was very well received within activist and progressive circles – who had never come across visually rich depictions of environmental politics and social struggles before. Then university students and other young people started to seek it out. Unfortunately, no commercial publisher was interested, and the very small first edition produced with the aid of a grant from – ironically – the Ministry of Environment, sold out. The book disappeared, But I and my wife Gurpreet kept selling photocopied versions of it through our People Tree bookstore for years. It was not until 10 years later, with Sarnath Bannerjee’s Corridor, that Indian publishers finally discovered graphic novels!”
“River of Stories was born from similar concerns as those that are animating young Goan artists today, but the key difference is I was addressing a generation of Indians coming of age in the early years of the liberalisation project,” Sen said. “With my work, I wasn’t directly addressing the authorities. Mine was a relatively lone voice in the art and design space at the time, and I urgently felt the need to gather allies from amongst my peers in the universities and urban spaces, to awaken them to the catastrophes unfolding in the forests and villages of the Narmada valley. So, my primary audience was other young people like me.”
About the efforts of the Mollem cohort, which includes his 26-year-old daughter Pakhi, Sen said, “I think it’s an unusual and brilliant strategy, which forces the authorities to confront a type of argument they have never had to face before. Art can make rational as well as emotional appeals, and provides direct as well as indirect testimony to the merits of the pro-ecology standpoint. Protest is not simply about objecting to something. In its complete sense protest is also about asserting an alternative – more often, a series of alternatives – for a better, more beautiful, more meaningful world. Art plays a critical role in giving tangible shape and form to that alternative vision.”
But while well-known contemporary artists often occupy the vanguard of global activism – think Pussy Riot or Ai Weiwei – that is not the case in India (although Sen is an anomaly). More generally, across the board, there is immense pressure to self-censor, under the constant threat of state action.
At the Delhi Art Fair earlier this year, for example, the police interrupted and removed a live community artwork, because of nothing more than – the project artists say – “an anonymous complaint made about ‘artwork being prepared by someone wearing clothes resembling the women sitting in Shaheen Bagh”, the site of a protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act.
Here, it’s important to note that immediately after lockdown was imposed to control Covid-19, the government promptly seized the chance to scrub down and dismantle installations and graffiti at that iconic protest site. There could be no better acknowledgement that art matters, and its impact is real.
Over the years, the notable exception to the mainstream Indian art world’s otherwise universal tight-lipped capitulation is the redoubtable Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, formed after the leftist playwright and actor it is named after was attacked and murdered (by goons associated with the Congress Party) while performing in the streets of Ghaziabad on New Year’s Day in 1989. In the intervening decades, Sahmat, as it is popularly known, has involved dozens of different artists, including on occasion some of the country’s most prominent, in promoting freedom of expression, and combating communalism. To me, it’s plainly evident there’s a direct cultural link between their most vital work in the 1990s, and what the Mollem artists are doing 30 years later.
“Art can draw people in and make them receptive in ways that straightforward polemical arguments cannot,” said Daisy Rockwell, who is best known for her superb translations from Urdu and Hindi (her rendering of Upendranath Ashk’s In the City a Mirror Wandering is one of World Without Borders’s list of best translated books of 2020) but is also an exceptional painter of unique, deceptively mordant and sharply satirical artworks. Most notably, her 2011 Little Book of Terror expertly subverts prevailing narratives about terrorism, and provides a great deal of troubling food for thought.
While her famous grandfather Norman painted some of the most recognizable scenes of classic Americana, that were latterly laced with themes of social consciousness, the younger Rockwell told me her own artworks were originally triggered by academic immersion in Urdu and Hindi literature. She said, “I studied the Progressive Writers’ Association and I guess learning about progressivism radicalised me. When I returned to painting after many years, I was preoccupied with political themes and social change, and that was what inspired me.”
Rockwell explained, “My political art is not so much confrontational as invitational. My goal is to invite the viewer to reconsider aspects of reality that they have come to accept. I want the audience to question their assumptions, and open their minds to dialogue and deconstruction of calcified views. I think of art as a kind of alchemy [because it] can draw people in and make them receptive in ways that straightforward polemical arguments cannot.”
I emailed Rockwell (she lives in Vermont) a collection of images of the Mollem artworks, and asked what she thought. In her characteristically warm response that is sure to hearten the enthusiastic young team that produced them, she wrote back: “I think these are wonderful pieces of art, and I think they should do more of it, and make it even bigger and bolder and harder to ignore. The forces they are fighting against are going to be difficult to thwart. But their art is beautiful and haunting, and if they are loud enough then they will have the power to change the conversation, and rally the public to their cause. I love it!”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.