“Through this project, I aim to strengthen and develop conservation efforts in Chennai.”
My project with Chennai Photo Biennale is called Living Coasts. For the past several years, a group of us from Madras Naturalists’ Society have been studying Tamil Nadu’s coast, its biodiversity, local communities and threats to coastal landscapes. We found how coasts, being on the margins of land, are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, yet, they also are our bulwarks against them. Mangroves, oyster reefs, seagrass beds, salt marshes, and sand dunes are crucial ecosystems for life and people, including deep inland, which I explored in this series. Beaches are also powerful metaphoric landscapes. They are ever in the making, never still, never quiet. They are at the edge of land, sea and sky. They symbolise confluence and constant remaking. In Chennai, whether we are aware or not, so much of our life—from weather to vocation to history to our patterns of living together or apart—is deeply influenced by the fact that we live by the sea.
While speaking about the theme of the festival in relation to my work, let me recount an incident that took place in 2019. A loop road was proposed over the Adyar estuary by a High Court judge which would oust several fishing villages and pave a significant part of Elliot’s beach. I was going out there and telling people, trying to get signatures for a public petition to save the beach. I discovered that very few members of the public cared, or rather liked to be shaken from their normal state of going about their affairs. I came back home those two days feeling rather disturbed and embarrassed. That condition of passive urban oblivion even threatened to sink in, telling me that it was normal. Regardless, we made enough noise, and the loop road project now stands shelved. People use the beach. The villages exist. Olive ridley sea turtles come here to nest every winter, as they have been for millions of years. Painted storks, lesser sand plovers and Caspian terns congregate at the estuary.
So, to me, disquietude means being vocal, thinking, active and informed citizens. Maybe, sometimes, uncomfortably so. The passive un-questioning sleepwalking state of much urban citizenship ensures bad governance and aggravates the crises we face today—whether it be climate or social justice. In a way, it means to shake up and wake up, oneself and others around.
With this series, I want to ask and explore if we can create reverse currents, undertow in an urban culture that will shift the momentum of the mainstream. Whether we can be multi-species communities and live with expansive identities emplaced in relationality with all the living worlds and each other. This inquiry needs disquietude, dismantling of age-old social constructs, beliefs and values that are obsolete and maladaptive, and a reimagining of what is a meaningful life, for all of us.
To view his series Living Coasts, visit www.chennaiphotobiennale.com