Illustrating India’s Complex Environmental Crises

A CAST Visiting Artist project traces the history of cause and effect that have led India to its current crossroads.


 

Abhijit Banerjee, Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and CAST Visiting Artist Sarnath Banerjee (no relation) share a similar background, but have very different ways of thinking. Both were raised for a time in Kolkata before leaving India to pursue divergent careers, Abhijit as an economist who won the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (an award he shares with MIT Professor Esther Duflo and Harvard Professor Michael Kremer), and Sarnath as a visual artist and graphic novelist.

 

The two collaborated on a pair of short films, The Land of Good Intentions and The Eternal Swamp, that blend their expertise in a unique and captivating form. Each film addresses a particular environmental crisis facing present-day India by tracing its origins back through the centuries. The films are presented in a kind of lecture style, with Abhijit appearing as the narrator, unraveling historical details, as graphics by Sarnath visualize the story with an often wry and easy wit. The results apply logic and narrative coherence to problems with complex roots in the forces of nature, economics, and local culture.

 

The Land of Good Intentions explores the conditions and policies that led to mass protests by farmers, in Punjab and elsewhere, following the passage of farming legislation in September 2020. The film begins by providing historical context from multiple angles, including the significance of rice to regional culture, its growing conditions (which require a lot of water), the region’s climate (which produces very little), and previous government subsidies that led to its overproduction. The 2020 Farm Bills were intended to address rice overproduction and its consequences, including the depletion of Punjab’s groundwater supply, pollution from the burning of rice stalks, and a surplus going to waste. But farmers considered that they were being asked to shoulder the costs of a problem the government created.

“The arguments in the film don’t necessarily align with popular liberal arguments, but it gives subtler shape and layers to them,” Sarnath says. “That dialectical way of thinking is important to the liberal movement, which is driven by passion and a sense of justice. Abhijit is driven by factual analysis, which sometimes makes the argument more complex.”

 

Their second film,The Eternal Swamp, addresses the crisis of flooding in Kolkata and its causes in the geographical and economic development of the city from the start. Because Kolkata was built on very wet land, and real estate has long been one of the only viable industries in the city, it has been developed without regard to proper drainage in a climate that produces more rainfall than it can handle. There is a pervading sense that Kolkata will eventually be entirely below water.

 

“It was a good collaboration from the beginning,” Sarnath says of working with Abhijit on the CAST Visiting Artist project, a process which began just before Abhijit was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019 and continued through the pandemic. “Both of us work on instinct, but the way he shapes an argument is very different from me,” Sarnath says. “My work does not follow a linear approach to telling a story; it’s fragmentary, driven by mood and emotion more than narrative, like composing a piece of music.”

Since they first met at a literary conference years ago, Abhijit and Sarnath have been close friends and intellectual sparring partners. Though Sarnath is based in Berlin and Abhijit in Boston, the two often cross paths in different locales and have long, ambling discussions that traverse a wide array of topics. “We spend a lot of time walking together wherever we find ourselves, whether it’s down the Longfellow Bridge in Boston or through Delhi or Kolkata,” Sarnath says. The idea for this project was born out of such conversations, in response to pressing events in their home country.

 

Abhijit wrote a proposal to MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), and the questions they received through the process helped them further shape the project. “It’s important, when you have the luxury, just to spend time together. Thanks to MIT, we managed to do that across continents,” Sarnath says of their creative process. “It’s more than just telling a story; Abhijit unpacked what was in his head, and I drew and wrote a bit as well,” Sarnath says. And they worked with the editor and animator Niusha Ramzani, whom Sarnath says lent an Iranian aesthetic to the film’s animations.

 

As for the format of the films, they wanted to capture the sense of a serene Bengali afternoon, with Abhijit seated in his home in Kolkata speaking in a relaxed tone. “We wanted it to be a bit like a Royal Society lecture,” Sarnath says, somewhat like a TED Talk but more personable and intimate. The aim was to make their complicated subjects more easily comprehensible, through the language of Abhijit’s narration and with the help of visual metaphors. Still, they did not want to sacrifice complexity.

Illustrating environmental crises in India
The Eternal Swamp, credit Sarnath Banerjee

“Economists are fabulists,” says Abhijit Banerjee. “We tell stories, simple stories, but that tends to get obscured in the telling, often because we like to be very careful about not overstating our case. Irony and the kind of playful humor that Sarnath brings to narration seemed to offer a different way to avoid being too emphatic, while allowing the story to be told in a way that it reaches a much larger audience. What is brilliant about Sarnath’s work is the play between reliable and the unreliable–the readers are happy to be misdirected because they know that it will ultimately lead them where they want to be. I was hoping we could bring a little of that into economics.”

 

“You have to emancipate yourself from any one definitive answer,” Sarnath Banerjee says, describing Abhijit’s expansive way of thinking, through which he follows multiple thought processes to their logical conclusions. The result allows for ambiguity and contradiction, though the pathways of thinking are clear. The films illustrate the situations facing farmers in Punjab and the waterlogged streets of Kolkata by tracing their roots and examining the history of cause and effect. The results provide clarity, but no simple answers.

 

The process was an enriching one for both of them, the kind of advancement in understanding that can only come in dialogue. “With each collaboration, you learn, and learning to me is an artistic form,” Sarnath says. “We are always learning.”


Written by Naveen Kumar

Posted on January 29, 2024 by Arts at MIT