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A few inches of fibreglass separate him from the water. His “land legs" are firmly anchored inside the catamaran and fine sprays of water splash his face as his fisherman friend paddles them both across the Arabian Sea. He thinks of the first fish, which developed feet as it moved to land. He thinks of the limits to which light can penetrate into the sea below, where there is only darkness, and where animals, which have no need for eyes or colour, live. “Above all, I think about my own vulnerability, my mortality and my insignificance," he records in his logbook. On land, he had the luxury of identifying as someone rooted in a social class and with privilege. On the tempestuous sea, his relationship to the earth had been stripped down to its elements. “I have slipped from being an individual into my ‘species’ identity."

Call him Ravi Agarwal. Like Ishmael, his literary counterpart in Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, he too is obsessed with the sentience of the sea while marvelling at its impermeability. “What is the sea? Can it be heard? Can it be seen? Can we see it or know it beyond our ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’? Can it ever be known fully?" he asks in his logbook, Ambient Seas, on display at The Guild gallery’s new space in the coastal town of Alibaug as part of his ongoing solo, which began on 11 October.

Agarwal’s findings reveal a movement away from his otherwise persistent ecological concern over the future sustainability of the river of his childhood, the Yamuna, into the more uncharted territory of the sea that hugs the shorelines of Thanthirayankuppam, a fishing village in Puducherry, where the mid-career artist recently bought a small beach house. In doing so, Agarwal hasn’t abandoned his rebellious stance against the irreversible desecration of the Yamuna. He has simply expanded the scope of his concerns as an environmental activist.

Else, All Will Be Still is the culmination of his intimate two-year-long engagement with the inhabitants of his adopted Tamil fishing village and the severe disruptions to their ancestral livelihoods, made under the guise of modernity and development. Despite its highly poetic tenor, the show is a poignant critique of everything that we stand to lose if we, as a civilization, refuse to reconfigure our relationship with nature. Agarwal perceives the resident collective of native fishermen as keepers of intuitive systems of marine consciousness. “Theirs is a lived relationship, where the sea is not this othered (sic) thing. It’s an economic relationship and a cultural relationship, both in terms of ritual."

To further his conception of a more ethical position that rethinks the dilemma between modernity and tradition, Agarwal appropriates the classical zeitgeist of Tamil Sangam literature, spanning 300 BC to 300 AD, that he was introduced to during his engagement with the fishermen.

Split into two categories, Akam and Puram, the inner and outer field, Sangam literature is stratified into five schematic themes, each pertaining to a specific landscape. The idea of the coexisting subject and object drew him to the poetic form. “In contemporary times, nature is the object and you are the subject. (In Sangam literature) you think of the sea and you think of pining and longing, and waiting for your lover…. It never says the sea is beautiful, but something that’s creating a longing in you. It’s a pre-Modern, ancient cultural construct of a landscape," he says.

Sangam Engines II are among the works displayed at the new show.
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Sangam Engines II are among the works displayed at the new show.

The document embodies the linguistic network that qualifies their daily dependence on the sea as a generative being sustaining their existence, a relationship that is currently reeling under the threat of imminent ecological disaster, given the construction of a port nearby that has steadily been destroying the coastline.

“No one asked the fishermen," Agarwal laments as he questions who the real beneficiary is of the artificial harbour, built between 1986-89, that led to the disappearance of 8km of beach while dramatically eroding at least 30km of the coastline surrounding Puducherry and the neighbouring Tamil Nadu coast. Agarwal visualizes the apocalyptic end by reproducing an image-sourced from Nasa, the US space agency, of a sterile wasteland in a corner of which lie the marooned ruins of a catamaran. The terrain is in fact real, the title, Sea Of Mars, suggests. It attests to the widely held theory that the red planet was host to teeming water bodies millions of light years ago.

Agarwal chanced upon the dismembered remains of a catamaran, which he bought and had restored with a brass text engraving. It was then shipped to The Guild and is one of the exhibits at the show. The very unit of the boat has been undergoing a conceptual transformation in coastal villages, he believes. There is the big boat and the small boat, each representing two economies. “Technology allows selective access to the sea," writes Agarwal.

Engines, a grid-based piece, has 20 images of the diverse engines that mechanize the boats, some covered in plastic to protect them from the rain, some exposed, all poised upon the keel and framed against the sea, bountiful in their colour scheme, serving as a perfect counterpoint to two stunning monochromatic prints, Lunar Tide and Sea, 6am, March 13, 2015.

The first appears from afar like a series of sonograms revealing something fecund and emerging. The grid is composed of 29 photographs, all taken at night, of a single wave curling against the shore flashed in the centre by a single, hand-held torch. The number 29 is symbolic of the lunar cycle, as is the white gleaming effect that Agarwal artfully captured.

Sea, 6am, March 13, 2015 is an azure dream-like print originally shot on a medium-format Mamiya 645 negative, using a long exposure. It was the most successful of Agarwal’s many attempts to capture the sea in a state of quasi stillness, where its expanse seems to stretch so far into the horizon that it melds into the pre-dawn sky. It is the impossibility of stillness that he is really after, despite his poetic chasing after silence. “I wanted to have this very Buddhist sea," he explains. “The idea of complete stillness in nature is something I’ve thought about. Landscape can be still, but it doesn’t evoke stillness, but for the sea to be still was a change of state for me. I wanted it to feel like it was bigger than you."

Through this one galactic moment, Agarwal allows us to vicariously experience the sea for the creature it truly is—impenetrable, resilient, full of longing, alive.

Else, All Will Be Still is on till 2 December, 10am-6.30pm, at The Guild, 1028, Ranjanpada, next to Sai Mandir, Alibaug (near Mumbai). The prices of works range from 60,000 to 5 lakh.

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