He says that ever since the farmers agitation reached Delhis doorstep, a peculiar restlessness refused to let go of him. But as soon as visuals of families camping in tractor-trolleys overpowered television screens and newspaper pages, he knew it was time to pick the camera and take the first road out to the Singhu border.
For conceptual photographer Diwan Manna, a National Academy Award winner whose works are in the permanent collection of Museum of Asian Art (Berlin, Germany) and Museum of Modern Art (Saint Etienne, France) apart from other institutions, the fact that the working class was feeling let down and forced to stay in inhospitable conditions pushed him to start photographing them. “How can an artist ignore a movement of this magnitude? There are no barriers — religious, social, political or that of class. It is as if the Utopian society has suddenly sprung up. I am clear, my aim is not to document but reflect upon what is happening around. In my mind, it is a statement.”
Manna, who is known to combine photography with painting, body arts and acting to create works feels that art assumes an important role in any mass movement. “As artists, we cannot find solutions, but definitely become a mirror for the present with an insight for the future.”
For him, the most striking aspect about the protests has been the fact that the movement has brought about the best in everybody. “Let’s be honest, we are not as close knit a society as we try to pretend to be. They are caste, regional and religious biases. Over there, the leadership of the villages have not fallen in these traps. I just hope they are able to carry some of it back home. And the takers of most of the stuff that is being given away there are the locals, and not farmers. They may or may not be in support of the farmers, but that has not stopped the latter from their seva bhav.”
Talk to him about the participation by the urban population in the protests, and the artist feels that in contemporary times one cannot really classify them sharply. “It’s much more fluid now. Children from villages are working in urban centers, many are in the Police and the Army. Urban population has roots in villages. One cannot discount the guilt people might feel sitting in comfortable quilts while thousands are out during these harsh winters.”
Stressing that over the past few decades there has been a drastic change in how we conceive ‘art’, Manna feels that it is no longer a piece of aesthetics or tool to enhance beauty. “It is essentially political, not just in India but across the world. Many artists are actively participating in these protests, and are activists as well. Artists are also thinkers, much concerned about the society and not cocooned in their studios. They read, watch films, and are constantly in touch with different events happening in the world, scientific developments and socio-political scenes around them. And they react.”
Adding that he has not thought about a book or exhibition once the agitations are open, Manna plans to keep doing more work on the protests. “If a serious body of work emerges, I will plan something. But I am not working towards a goal. This is a one of its kind protest in the world which has gone beyond non-violence — encompassing seva in its fold.”
While his purpose may not be to document the agitation, Manna does feel that it is an important aspect considering Indians have been extremely lethargic about documenting “A photograph is something you can never deny. Not just a proof, it stirs too. It is really heartening and encouraging that very senior and serious people besides youngsters are documenting these protests.”