News cycles can often leave us immune to the ongoing struggles and oppression of peoples around the world. It is not that we don’t care, but perhaps that the pain becomes so overwhelming to witness, and any action seems too small to make a difference. The action of dissent however, is necessary for change.
For the farmers of India, dissent has looked like protesting in the streets of Delhi for over 100 days now. One hundred days, spent in cold, frigid temperatures, has resulted in over 248 deaths of farmers. The cost of our food is being paid for through their daily resistance to the government enforced farm bills.
Scrolling through news articles, headlines share a narrative far removed from what is actually going on at the protest sites. Journalists and activists attempting to voice the truth have been silenced and brutally assaulted in custody. And yet, 100 days later, farmers continue to create community and hold steadfast in their belief that this is still the right thing to do. These farmers are truly an inspiration, some in their eighth decade on this earth have experienced less dignity and more brutality from the very forces they served to protect in their youth. They give us hope. No boulders, barbed wire fences or nails on the ground will defeat their solidarity for this cause.
Meet Gurleen Rai:
Gurleen is a storyteller and animator drawing inspiration from nature, in particular the strange and unusual. Her films have screened worldwide and her animated mini series Rosie & Joe aired on FXX in 2020.
NAVJOT: Welcome Gurleen!
When we first began working together on the title Dreams of Hope: a Bedtime Lullaby, I remember one of our common interests being socio-environmental issues. As you created illustrations for Dreams of Hope, a deep compassion for ocean and land life was so evident, whether it was the endangered chirus or the blue whales included in the book. The animation you shared with me recently, connects us to a socio-environmental issue – that of the farmer protests. What pushed you to create this interpretation?
GURLEEN: I was seeing images and videos of the protests and the increasing violence against protesters and it was upsetting to say in the least, but the catalyst for this concept was seeing the Indian police put up concrete barriers and barbed wire and install tire spikes on the highways leading into Delhi.
I was sickened by the acts of violence against the protesters and thought to myself, one side is planting tire spikes while the other plants seeds. A seed is a beautiful thing, it’s a symbol of hope and optimism, this tiny life capsule has the potential to grow into a plant that can transform an entire ecosystem. These farmers are protesting for food sovereignty and are resisting a future where corporations and billionaires control agriculture. Anyone who cares about the environment or human rights, or the monopolization of natural resources should care about what’s happening in India right now. It’s poetic, nobody thought it would be farmers taking on these giants so I wanted to make this animation as a way of saying I love you, I support you and thank you.
Animation ‘Seed of Hope’ ©Gurleen Rai
NAVJOT: One of the first images in your animation shows a farmer reading. Now, this already defies the propaganda and stereotypes of farmers from Panjab as being illiterate and not able to understand the language of the disputed farm laws. I found this image poignant given the spread of fake news and arrests of journalists and protesters who have dared to speak the truth. Trolley Times is a newspaper co-founded by Navkiran Natt and her five friends to counter the fake narrative and document real-time events. Was it intentional to begin ‘Seed of Hope’ with this image?
GURLEEN: My intention with this animation was to create something that focused on the unity and optimism amongst the protesters. When researching this piece I looked at photos of daily life from the camps and a photo of a man reading a newspaper stood out to me. I wanted this image to set the tone for the entire animation. I appreciate you mentioning that farmers have been called uninformed and illiterate, it’s important we take notice of the way anti farmer propaganda is trying to dehumanize these protesters. Ironically, I’ve watched a number of interviews with farmers and they’re incredibly eloquent and clear headed about why they’re protesting and the impact the farm bills will have on their lives and the future.
NAVJOT: Next, we see women and children, fires are lit in the background reminding us of the bitter cold being endured by these peaceful protesters. A collective group are making Langar at one point. This is a powerful nod to food sovereignty. During the farmer protests, we have heard about and seen how Langar has not only fed the people gathered at protest sites, but this action has impacted local residents by tackling issues of hunger and poverty. How do you feel Art influences issues of socio-economic injustice?
GURLEEN: Art can be very persuasive and it’s been used as a tool for good and bad to sway people’s opinions for centuries. For this particular movement artists have been lending their voice to amplify the farmer’s protest and with social media it’s reached millions of people who may not have known about what’s happening. What’s unique about being an artist right now is we have so many avenues to share our work. Mainstream media isn’t as receptive to these issues because they don’t see how its relevant to their Western, largely white audience. For the first time artists who are personally connected to a social movement are a part of the conversation. This art feels more personal, more intimate than something made by someone who’s just looking at it from the outside and offering commentary.
NAVJOT: There is a sign that reads: ‘Farmers Feed the World’ in the animation. What is the importance of this message?
GURLEEN: Farmers feed the world is a reminder that if you ate today it’s because of a farmer’s labour. This is especially true of small farmers because 70% of the food we consume comes from them. For me, 2020 was a reminder that the people we rely on the most within our society are often the most overlooked. We don’t have to worry about where our food comes from because it’s always there and we take it for granted. I live in New Orleans and we recently had record cold temperatures that caused massive power outages for huge parts of the South so shipping routes were disrupted. In only a couple days grocery store shelves were empty and it was hard to find basic food items. Without farmers our society wouldn’t function the way it does.
This phrase also reminds me of the hardships farmers face to ensure we all eat. My own experiences trying to grow food has made me even more appreciative of their labor. This past year I started gardening and in the process failed at growing so many vegetables because it’s hard to keep a plant healthy enough for it to fruit. It was an obsession to the point that I’d be outside in a downpour frantically covering seedlings with plastic so they wouldn’t get flooded. We had weeks of non-stop rain that caused farmers to lose entire crops. I learned that there’s so much that’s out of your control when growing food. With spring approaching it’s a great time to plant some seeds and see the patience, care and luck it takes to get them to sprout and grow into mature plants. We’re lucky because farmers do this for a living so we don’t have to.
NAVJOT: In Dreams of Hope: A Bedtime Lullaby, a father sings an ode to the beauty of the natural world as he lulls his Little One to consider the danger of harming land and ocean life. Towards the end of your animation, a Little One seems to send a dream of hope out into the world, which lands in an area full of metal spikes. Young climate activists and accomplices have used their voice to amplify the human rights violations taking place in India today. Do you think little ones across the world already understand their responsibility to people and planet above profit?
GURLEEN: I think children are natural environmentalists. If you were to bring a 4 yr old to a garden and hand them a 10 dollar bill they’d lose interest in the piece of paper and be more curious about the plants and wildlife around them. I love the way children have a sense of wonder and excitement about our natural world but they ultimately learn from our actions and we have a different set of values. Unfortunately, we live in a society that values status and possessions more than the cost of acquiring those things. Children are some of our best teachers, seeing the world with empathy and curiosity comes naturally to them, if we could learn to see through their eyes I don’t think we’d choose to be as destructive to this planet.
Thank you Gurleen for offering ‘Seed of Hope’ as a response to the farmer protests! You have shared about an amazing project you are working on for Vaisakhi. I look forward to seeing more of your art out in the world and offer this space to amplify it further, whenever I am able to.
(See previous posts to read more about the farmer protests).