In 1998, Pankaj Sekhsaria was fast asleep at a beach in the South Sentinal Island in Andaman when he felt a tugging on the plastic sheet he lay on – as if someone was trying to pull it away. He looked around to find a green sea turtle right next to the sheet. “What a shock it was,” said Sekhsaria. “She was trying to move forward but slipping on the smooth plastic sheet. The actions of her flippers trying to move her forward were tugging at the sheet. She was out on the beach to lay her eggs and we had laid our sheets in her path. We got up quickly, pulled the sheet from under her, moved to another part of the beach so that we could sleep and she could lay her eggs.”
A researcher, writer, activist and academic, Sekhsaria has since been dedicated to the conservation of environment and wildlife, with a focus on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. His tryst with the islands started almost 20 years ago and has been writing and reporting on the indigenous communities and environment ever since. He has worked on documentary films and even authored books based on his experiences on the islands.
After years of extensively exploring these islands, Sekhsaria has had many thrilling experiences – he has been attacked by a mother bird and witnessed the hatchlings of a Giant Leatherback turtle make their first voyage from nest to sea. He has finally consolidated his visual documentation of these experiences for an exhibit, titled, Island Worlds… of Land and Sea.
The images of deep blue waters, green forests, luminous jellyfish and giant turtles printed on silk cloth will be travelling to Delhi’s India International Centre from July 22 to August 3 after being displayed in Pune, Chennai and Goa.
“The word and the image have been central to my work,” said Sekhsaria. “But mainly as tools of information and of advocacy – in articles, photo features and submissions made to the courts. In the last four or five years, I felt the need to consolidate this work into more creative, even abstract domains.”
The idea to print on silk came from another exhibition done in Hyderabad that Sekhsaria had been a part of. The photographs, which showed the entire process of how cotton is woven into cloth, were printed on cotton handloom fabric.
“Silk offers a texture and a lustre that, I thought, would do justice to the sharpness and striking colours one sees on the islands,” said Sekhsaria. “We are so used to seeing photographs on paper or on the computer screen that we take that for granted.”
In 1994, Sekhsaria was an engineering student at Pune University and visited Port Blair for the first time, to meet a friend in the Navy. He spent the next two months travelling the length of the islands – from Diglipur in the north to the southern-most Indira Point. “I went back a couple of years later on a research project through Kalpavriksh and the Bombay Natural History Society to study issues related to timber in parts of the tribal reserves on the islands. Based on those findings, we filed a public interest litigation in the Calcutta High Court.”
The PIL highlighted timber logging activities inside the Onge Tribal Reserve, which makes up 530 sq km of Little Andaman Island. In 2002, the Supreme Court passed directions for the protection of the indigenous people and the forests of the islands.
The photographs on display at Island Worlds celebrate the beauty and richness of the islands, while looking at the damage to its natural resources. A photograph of an elephant next to a felled tree demonstrates this well – “The diameter of the log is roughly the height of the full grown elephant and is a stark reminder of the richness and enormousness of the Andaman forests... It never fails to evoke a gasp from a person seeing it for the first time,” said Sekhsaria. “It is amazing how little we are aware of its diversity, and it’s unfortunate that a large section of the settler populations in the islands don’t either. Unless we are aware of what we are surrounded by, we cannot account for the damage that we might be causing.”
One of Sekhsaria’s concerns is that there is little acknowledgement of the fact that the islands are located in a seismic zone, where earthquakes and tsunamis are bound to occur. Plus, the islands are home to small and very vulnerable indigenous communities that have been living here for thousands of years. The forests are rich repositories of biological wealth.
“None of these are seen as worth preserving when approving projects and proposals for development here,” he said. “We are increasing the vulnerability of the place and its people.”