Until Oblivion – viewing Amar Kanwar’s ‘The Sovereign Forest’

Amar Kanwar began as a documentary filmmaker, later expanding his practice to multi-channel video installations. While he works strictly with documentary and archival images, Kanwar employs various methods of editing and presentation to exceed their immediate facticity, conjuring atmosphere, underlying motives, and furtive histories. This is a (re)viewing diary of Amar’s latest work The Sovereign Forest, showing at Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai. It is open till 14 January 2016. The Sovereign Forest is primarily based in Odisha and this work is made in collaboration with Sudhir Pattnaik (Samadrusti) and Sherna Dastur. The installation/projection has been and is still open to public (in Oriya) in Bhubaneswar at Samadrusti, now for more than three years.


We cannot slow down here. There is no room for error. No time for resting our eyes and looking away. The best precaution is to remain vigilant – day and night, in sun and shadow. To occupy the vantage points – with eyes on top of the watchtower near the clouds and ears to the ground on the dust. From here we need to tell the stories that we have to tell – to tell them with anguish and honesty. Not because the war will be lost and larceny completely executed if we don’t – the fight shall continue till the last drop of blood. But because we are all collectively responsible, somehow or the other, for this never ending cycles of battles and bureaucratized violence. And the least we can do is to resist with those who have been forced to fight for their homelands, alongside their fierce and earthly selves decimated every hour by this nation whose demarcations had surrounded their lives even before they had a chance to raise a voice – a concession or an opposition.

The matrix of the market does not yield to anything. Entities obstructing the cavalcade of its ultimate and only aim – uncompromising profits – shall be eliminated. No distinction will be made between the living and the nonliving. Everything is a means to conclude at opulent returns to scale. And now after millenniums of unchecked production, distribution and sales, energy requirements have risen in an unprecedented scale. Present bases of resource extraction would not suffice and have to be expanded. Engineering techniques need to be altered to match required efficiency so as to meet the ushering demands of the business cycles, which will not be left to come to a halt at any cost. Governments in India and across the world have succumbed to the intimidations and embargoes charaded by corporations and the institutions that represent them, opening their markets, forests, mountains, rivers and livelihoods to the white collars of the managerial personnel’s and the knights of the Bretton Woods.

Decisions have been made, borders drawn. Definitions for words which may come to be crucial in this fight – some of them being ‘progress’, ‘growth’ and ‘modern development’ – have been constructed, accepted almost ubiquitously, and distributed by our free press, which is no more than a pamphleteer to the Empire. Factory plans, forest mappings and methods of demolition, eviction and acquisition have been determined. The harbingers of this project will not let their decisions hindered. The orders shall proceed unchecked – at least until the final apocalypse. Consent has thus been manufactured.

Language itself has been colonized. Peace treaties are out of sight, armies near. The resistance did not consider violence until they forced it to take up guns. The ones who have signed the lands to the magnates have waged war against whom they call their own people. The resisters are now forced to arm themselves to keep the infiltrators, who burn villages and rape humans ruthlessly and with impunity, at a distance. Battle camps are now alight. Choose your side. Have your arguments at the ready. Mind where your feet are. Shrapnels display no trace of mercy. Venturing into enemy territory may result in serious harm or even the loss of life.

Amar Kanwar The Sovereign Forest 2015 MMB Mumbai IMG_3892


John Berger, that wonderful writer who vicissitudes between terrains and contexts with startling seamlessness, envisioned the artist as someone who ‘receives’ and not ‘creates’ what he is trying to portray. He suggested that artists, the messengers to the world, must “lose their identities” in order to be “open to the lives of other people”. This expectation, never undemanding, can be seen fulfilled, perhaps with a brusque contentment when you visit The Sovereign Forest by Amar Kanwar, currently on display in Bombay. This ever growing exhibition puts to public display almost two decades of Amar’s work, which is without doubt, uncontainable in any review that can be written. Iterations have put forth new material each time – the latest one being presented in Bombay.

Amar Kanwar The Sovereign Forest 2015 MMB Mumbai IMG_3836


Please maintain silence. Please do not touch the work of art, except when necessary. You are now entering Amar Kanwar’s exhibition titled ‘The Sovereign Forest’. The title and the exhibition summaries seemed interesting, and therefore you decided to spare some time in this part of the city.

To start with, sit on the bench to watch ‘The Scene of Crime’, a forty two minute film, which the brochure described as “an experience of a landscape just prior to erasure”. Presented in ten maps, each map narrating interconnected stories, the film draws you through the intricacies of a conflict finding its anguish from the poignant tales of loss – “There is a map of Kalinga in the corner of her eye.” and longing -“The suddenness of his departure is still hard to believe. Her eyes ache to see him again.” As the maps progress, a schematic imagery of the conflict is registered – of the digging of sand from the river, of the stubbornness of the judges to refuse the evidences of murder – because of which he is “neither dead or alive”, and intimacy of the river as the “only witness to what she feels”. In the seventh map, she has a dream. She meets him “where the fireflies filled the trees”, and he tells her about the decades old land records which he had retrieved, which is now obsolete. With courage and astonishment they converse about the police and the Rapid Acquisition Force that would “acquire land in just a day”. The methodology was simple and included five simple steps – “Measurement of land, calculations, demolition, eviction and acquisition”. No more, no less. The Scene of Crime lies like a metal anchor within her. Sabotaging all hope, the judge “still refuses to accept the evidence of the murder”. That leaves her with no choice. She treads on her own and “wanders, collecting all her witnesses – The gatekeeper, the tower of flowers, the source of the river Vamsadhara, the Niyamgiri mango sapling, the paddy fields fields of Bedal village, the medicinal tree of Kudumasahi and the Betel leaf of the Dinka village”. As the court has ultimately turned down all her pleas, leaving them at dismay, the forest and its people begin the trial – “The Sovereign Forest vs. The Union of India”.

Next on view is ‘The Counting Sisters and Other Stories’, printed on handmade banana fibre paper. You turn the pages slowly and read. You encounter raconteur’s and oblique storytellers – The Counting Sisters, mourners for the dead, who have been twice displaced (first by the government and then by the corporations) who kept track of people who had were killed or had disappeared; The One Alone who counted the living; the eternal Protector of the track of the meadow; the two twins – one who talks about the past and comes forward in time and the other who describes the future and retreats to the present; the stupefaction of a teacher having realized that one day when she came to school, all her students had forgotten the alphabets; and many more of such throbbing recitals. In the last of those tales, The Counting Sisters are arrested. They question the police. “Is it a crime to sing songs, to count the dead and the disappeared?” They ask. The only retort seems to be silence. They are put in a cell along with the other accused. Raged at this unjustifiable act, a large crowd, people who have heard and love The Counting Sisters, come to the police station and register their protest. They sing songs together through dawn and dusk.

Amar Kanwar The Sovereign Forest 2015 MMB Mumbai

After the stories have mesmerized you, proceed to ‘A Love Story’, a 5 minute film which meditates on an expanding cityscape. The pertinence of migration, voluntary and enforced, – perhaps one of the most predominant determinants of the previous and the present millenniums – on separations and truncated lives is the central theme of the film. The whispers of longing loom over the everyday conduct in the emerging metropolis. A Love Story is located in that particular time and space where segregations, partitions and loss intersect.

Just behind the screen of the film is ‘The Prediction’ (handmade banana fiber paper), which will provide you an opportunity, a very rare one indeed, to play the dual roles of the witness and the judge at the same time. The Prediction narrates the life and death of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the founder of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM). Just days before his assassination on September 28, 1991, Niyogi had foreseen and predicted the high probability of the loss of his life. He stored his premonitions in his recorder, from where they were obtained. At the time of his death, he was spearheading a strike in a Bhilai steel plant in Chhattisgarh, which was mobilizing as a formidable non violent movement against rampant exploitation. In June 1997, the Sessions Court convicted two prominent industrialists and three others to life imprisonment. The hired assassin was awarded the death sentence. And in June 1998, with astounding predisposition, the Jabalpur High Court acquitted all those who had been convicted by the Sessions Court. And in January 2005, the Supreme Court judgment which acquitted the industrialists and the others except the assassin, sent out the most appalling signal to the workers movement and the toiling peasants – that their present methods of nonviolent resistance and opposition did not stand a chance in the labyrinth of corporate profit and government and judicial complicity. The Prediction stands as an archive of these events, Niyogi’s transcripts, court proceedings, CMM pamphlets and a video projection on one side that pictures Niyogi’s funeral and the people’s discomposure that is ever present, turning us into both onlooker and jury.

Alongside in the exhibition is The Constitution (Book : handmade ramie/cotton fibre paper, screen print, hand sewn) with a projection; 260 Varieties of Indigenous, Organic Rice Seeds (found at “the scene of crime”, preserved and disseminated to counter the rarity imparted by industrialization); 6 Books (The Seed Book, In Memory Of, Photo Album 1 : The Lying Down Protest, Photo Album 2 : Kalinganagar, Time, The Referendum); Photographs (Kalinganagar Series, Record) and Selections from Evidence Archive (243 digital prints – photographs, documents and Nidhan’s Question).

Amar Kanwar The Sovereign Forest 2015 MMB Mumbai IMG_3885


You have therefore arrived at the end of The Sovereign Forest. This portrayal of the struggle, if you have seen and listened with honesty, will leave you unsettled and joyous. Disturbed and angry having seen people being uprooted, incarcerated and destroyed. And the beauty embedded in this unflinching solidarity and brave resistance delivers the possibility of a different world. The struggle has lived on despite the inhuman and pernicious methods levied against it by the State and its camaraderie’s. It will persist till peace is attained and silence has arrived. The Comrades will march – until the last sigh of life, the final hope of justice – until oblivion.


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Ajin K Thomas Written by:

Ajin K Thomas grew up in Malappuram, Kerala, and currently lives in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

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