Students’ Biennale play spotlights desperation behind farmer suicides

Students from Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship stage one-off play in Aspinwall House 

Kochi, Mar 11:The despairand hopelessness that causes farmers across the country to take their own lives was the focus for a haunting street-play at Aspinwall House today that doubled as a protest against poor governance and unchecked commodification of farm produce.

Titled ‘Rice Mill’, the half-hour performance highlighted the human cost exacted by failed crops, uncaring market and rural employment practicesthat fail farmers and public apathy to their plight. The show was conceptualised and conducted by participants of Students’ Biennale 2016, the ongoing second edition of the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s flagship art education initiative.

The production had five actors – BFA students from Indian College of Arts and Draftsmanship in Kolkata, one of 55 schools participating in SB 2016 – put on a display that provided a glimpse into the desperate straits farmers and their families find themselves in following a lean season.

“The performance was the culmination of intensive research into farmer suicides across India. The human cost is lost in cold statistics. We have attempted to highlight the stories of small sample of farmers in order to create awareness about what has been for decades now a national epidemic,” said ShatavishaMustafi, one of the 15 emerging curators in SB 2016.

“Anything that enters the realm of the market is turned into a commodity. When a staple crop like rice, which fulfills a basic human need, is being commercialised to the extent that it harms the producers, it demands attention and intervention. This is a small effort to that end,” she said.

Emerging from empty gunny sacks, the students read aloud from real-life suicide notes, dragged boulders across and took a spade to the hard earth tosymbolise the futility and frustration of ploughing barren fields. They lunched on watered rice and onion pieces – the typical sparse meal carried in potlis (bundle bags) to the fields. A mournful melody adds to the somber mood.

“I’m not ending my life. You are killing me,” the students intone as they hand out packets of rice to the crowd. The words reflect the messages printed on the packages – taken from notes and pleas by farmers from Dausa in Rajasthan to Khammam in Telangana and beyond – in the space one typically finds recipes.“Sorry… please get remarried but not again to a farmer,” one reads.

“We decided to focus on rice because it is a traditional food across the country and will be relevant to a pan-Indian audience. We transported about two quintals of rice to the venue, cleaned it and separated it into the packets. The audience can keep the package so long as they take the message home too,” said Srikanta Roy, one of the students – for whom it was a first turn at creating a performance-installation. The other student participants were AnnyashaDey, AnnweshaMalakar, Akeemba R. Sangma and Aryama Pal.


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