Water, through an artist's lens

Photographer Arjun Swaminathan speaks to India Water Portal about his journey so far, which includes filming water stories.
Search for water (Source: Arjun Swaminathan) Search for water (Source: Arjun Swaminathan)

How did your interest in filming water stories come about? Is there any particular issue on water that has interested you? What has guided your selection?

I was into photography earlier and was working with NGOs on developmental issues in rural areas. This is what triggered my interest in water as I not only saw but also realised deep down our entire dependency on water related issues be it food, health or agriculture.

I saw people desperate to get water to drink, women walking long distances to collect water, farmers trying to get water for their crops, the horrifying outcomes and desolation that follows the lack of rains in rural areas. Also, water is one element that has been abused the most inspite of it being so important. Look at what we have done to our rivers, streams, groundwater!

A couple of years ago, I had been to 8 or 9 drought-stricken villages in Maharashtra and the whole experience shook me. What I saw was very scary. I also felt that the government was doing very little indeed to really help the farmers in the area. What could be the reasons for this situation in a state which has the maximum resources being put in for irrigation, has the maximum number of dams and then we hear of the maximum number of farmer suicides! This not only reflects the insensitivity of the government to the real issues of farmers, but also the gross mismanagement and mishandling of valuable resources such as water.

Everywhere I went, everything boiled down to the availability of water. This is how I decided to make films on water and those too on people, their voices, their experiences, as governments do not matter. What matters is people, their voices and their amazing stories of strength and resilience under adverse circumstances.

Which places in india have you visited to make these films? Any particular experiences that you would like to share with us?

I have visited a number of states right from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka to Gujarat. Every place has a different story and a different background. There are stories of water abundance and scarcity, of wastage and struggle to save every drop in all these places.

For example, in Maharashtra, I went to document stories of drought, at the same time I was struck by the community spirit of people in Rajasthan where I went to film efforts made on water management by people's participatory committees, efforts made at conserving hills and forests by youth groups.

It is a different picture in Andhra Pradesh, which is very arid. I went here to see the watershed development activities implemented by people and also the dilemmas people face when they have no water, and of migration and efforts made at seeking alternative livelihoods by the people that included livestock, rearing sheep and cattle etc.

I came across interesting examples of farmers who have overcome drought and migration through trying to work on alternative sources of incomes. In Gujarat, I have mostly been to urban areas to seek examples on urban water planning.

What has struck me in some cases such as in Andhra Pradesh has been the determination and perseverance of the people from one village who waited for as long as 15 years to revive a hill top! Another thing that caught my attention was the youth coming together to share groundwater in a village in Rajasthan. These positive examples are extremely inspiring and I think it is important to tell these positive stories to other people who also will be able to learn from it.

Not a drop to drink (Source: Arjun Swaminathan)

Could you tell us about your visit to the ACWADAM site recently and what struck you the most? How do you intend for it to reflect in your film?

I visited the villages of Muthalane and Khed with the ACWADAM team, an NGO working on groundwater issues in Pune, Maharashtra. I think that the science of groundwater is pretty complicated not only for a lay person, but also for technical people to understand easily. This idea of demystifying it for people in the villages is an extraordinary concept.

Not that farmers do not have the knowledge, but combining the two sets of information to gain a better understanding of groundwater is incredible. For me, what is important to absorb as a filmmaker is the process of how villagers understand the concepts and how do they respond? The challenge lies in being able to document these processes in a film.

How do you look at water issues as a filmmaker and how do you think is it different from others, maybe policy makers, researchers etc?

As a filmmaker, I focus on people and their experiences. It is not about numbers, facts out there, but the lived experience of going through processes or situations that people face in relation to water. How do these impact people? What do they do in times of crisis?

I mostly work among rural folk, so I try and bring out issues that ordinary people from different walks of life in rural areas face. It can be women who have to walk long distances in search of water or farmers facing issues related to water scarcity or people/ communities who have made gone at extraordinary lengths to deal with water scarcity in their area.

Why film as a media? How is it different from other forms ?aIs it an advantage while being used for water-related issues?

I do work with photographs. But then, I realised that what I was seeing or experiencing in the field could not be documented through photography alone. It is a static medium and though very interesting, it has a very short memory. I believe that everything lies in the hands of the common people, governments do not matter. How do you motivate people to do something is by showing them stories or examples, which can encourage them to change their behaviour? Films can thus have more impact by being able to show people actual experiences and demonstrations of how changes have happened.

How does filming help improve people's understanding of water or create an impact?

I think films are more dynamic, have an immediate connect with people. I usually make location-specific films that can help people connect with the surroundings in the film. If I show them films that have people looking like them, speaking the same language, same economic or social conditions, same occupations like farming with same kind of crops, people are quick to identifiy it with themselves. They see the whole story unfolding right in front of their eyes. I want my films to help give people positive messages of change and help them to bring about a behavioural change by looking at these positive examples.

What do you feel are the pressing issues/core issues related to water in India? What needs to be done to deal with them?

I think there is very little understanding of the source and resource in India. Mismanagement of water is one of the most important issues related to water in our country. Many a time, governments have their own agendas in pushing certain practices forward.

Scramble for water (Source: Arjun Swaminathan)

For example, sugarcane cultivation in certain drought prone areas in states such as Maharashtra still continues and the small farmers suffer. This gross mismanagement of water resources must be stopped. How do you do that? It is important to inform the farmers of this and let them know of the need to use alternative kinds of crops and to use the water sparingly.

I think, people need to be informed of these things, empowered to take their own decisions and motivated to act collectively. If my films can do atleast something in taking these important messages to people and motivating them to act, I think that would serve the purpose of my films.

How has this understanding impacted you in your everyday life? Any message for our readers?

All my travel and experiences with people have helped me admire the tremendous grit and the determination of a number of people who have struggled agianst all odds to bring about some change in the society. It is a humbling experience and makes us look at what we do in our everyday lives too.

In everyday life, I use water sparingly with this awareness of water related issues in mind, and I make my two daughters understand the value of water. I think, it is important that we tell our children about water and teach them the value of water from a very young age. My message to your readers "be wise about your resources"

Photographs in this article have been taken from Arjun Swaminathan's photoessay on the droughts in Maharashtra.

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