There is a sense of controlled chaos at the breathtaking Adil Shah Palace in Panjim, on the banks of the Mandovi River. The 2017 edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival has just opened and there is a crowd milling about, marvelling at the centuries-old space, poring over paintings and moving gingerly around art installations.

In the maze of paintings, photographs and people, a white wall with black handwriting stands out. Words curve around photographs and flow around images of a brown river, a water body so precious and vital that it determines the fate of millions of people and animals. The words tell stories – of people who depend on the waters of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin only to have it tarnished with thick black oil, of children whose hands are slick with it and of poor young boys who are kidnapped for ransom, driving their fisherfolk parents to debt to rescue their children.

These images and words are by Arati Kumar-Rao, an independent environmental photographer and writer. She has spent the last four years documenting the waters of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin and the resulting work, A Slow Violence – Chronicling a river and its people, is being showcased at the ongoing Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa.

Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao

Kumar-Rao’s fascination with rivers goes back to her childhood. “My father was very involved with environmental issues. He was part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and of the Save the Western Ghats movement. We had all these books lying around, lots of talk about dams and rivers. So when I graduated and wanted to do something in this space along with storytelling and writing, there was no other topic that was as important as this one. It was a foregone conclusion that I would do something related to the environment.”

The Ganga-Brahmaputra basin is the largest river basin in the world flowing through Tibet, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Over 500 million people live in this region, making it the world’s most populated river basin as well. “The nature of freshwater is such that everyone wants a little part of it,” said Kumar-Rao. “So it becomes contentious and there are vested interests as well. It is one of the defining issues of our times and it is important to spend time with it – not writing just one article and then you’re out, but spending time to see how it affects various things because it’s all interconnected.”

Jadhav composite. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Jadhav composite. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao

One of the most striking images on display is a large black and white composite of an elderly man, his face cracked and furrowed much like the land behind him is. “I learned about this man much after I met him,” Kumar-Rao said. “He invited me home, insisted I stay for tea and a meal. When I was leaving, somebody told me that this man had lost his house, his land, his cows – he was a milkman – to the river and the erosion of the land. The man himself had said nothing to me; he was completely hospitable and I find that kind of spirit throughout the basin. It gives me hope because this can be very depressing work. People are amazing and it is a shame that our development does not take into account what they really need.”

Oil collector. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Oil collector. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao

When asked about a thread on Twitter which discusses how long-term reporting on environmental issues and despair about climate change can actually affect your health, Kumar-Rao agrees. “It is very hard to deal with. I come back to this dichotomous life I live in, with a roof over my head no matter what I do. I don’t have any of the problems these people have. I live in Bangalore and see that the problems are coming [our way], but not yet. The apathy and willful blindness of the government is intensely depressing. Whenever I come back from a trip, it takes me a while to recover or write about it; it’s not easy.”

Kumar-Rao’s work over the last few years has taken her back several times to the region. “I’ve followed these people over time. I know them, their stories well. I can come away – they are left there.”

Kabita Mandal. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Kabita Mandal. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao

At Serendipity, her photographs cover three rooms, white walls with handwritten text swimming around her images or a black splash of paint reminiscent of the oil spill that she has so forcefully documented in text and images. “The reactions have been surprising [at Serendipity],” she said with a wry laugh. “The photos are intense; they are not everyone’s cup of tea. This festival has some amazing stuff; every room is so rich. By the time you come here you are full of that richness. So when people come up to me and they relate to the images, it is good to see. The next time they come across a report in the newspaper, they will be able to connect this to the genesis of some of these issues because these days, we don’t often follow stories back to their source. You need to ask why, where did it come from, what happened 20, 50 years ago which is causing this now. That’s what I’m trying to do here – connect the dots back. I find that some of that is sinking in, which is really nice.”

Hilsa kid. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Hilsa kid. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao

Kumar-Rao’s future plans include many trips back to the rivers that she holds dear, including the Cauvery closer to home. “This is just the tip of the iceberg – there’s so much going on in that region and now of course, there’s trans-boundary tension as well. I want to trace the contemporary history of this land over time, so I can’t see myself doing much else in my life other than this.”

Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Kabita Mandal. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao
Kabita Mandal. Photo credit: Arati Kumar Rao

The Serendipity Arts Festival is on from December 15 to December 22 in Panjim, Goa.