Roots breathing heavy

MANGROVE FORESTS: REPOSITORY OF NATURE’S MAGIC·Photo exhibition·India International Centre, New Delhi·November 4-10, 2001

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Saturday 15 December 2001

at first glance, the photographs on display fail to stir one's imagination. The vast mangrove forests along the Orissa coastline are just as picturesque as any other, with little pretension of offering a novel experience. In other words, the work focussing on the natural and supernatural, appears to be nothing out of the ordinary. The staccato scenes from the documentary, also being screened at the Delhi-based India International Centre's gallery, on the other hand, blast the comfort of a genteel ambience. The film on the screen is gut wrenching: there is nothing of the wilderness, beautiful expressionistic scenes of tranquillity or the glossy contrasts that usually adorn the interiors of such gallery halls. It is definitely not a comfortable weekend gallery visit. The 29-inch television kept in one corner of the studio room runs a documentary on the debilitating effect of the 1999 Super cyclone that hit the shores of Orissa and devastated the state's ecology and economy. And going by the current state of governance, one may say, damaged them irreparably. The documentary is loaded with scenes of death and devastation: people struggling to come to terms with the calamity, which some want us to believe was natural, and grim scenes of dead bodies being scavenged out of water-laden fields. Once the film is over one looks around. It is then that the relevance of the photographs on display dawns.

The photographs are a documentary in stills. Going from frame to frame one is made to realise the importance of mangroves in the coastal ecology of Orissa and how their destruction has caused led to the devastation in the region.The photographs may not fetch any award for composition but surely win one's heart with their understatement. If one is lucky, the photographer, Sanjay Khatua, is around to quicken this change in opinion. Else, the exhibition can be journey to self-discovery. That the documentation has been studiously done is quite in evidence. The first picture is a simple shot of a tree (Lone Dhalabani) standing like a lone warrior on the Orissa sea front, pioneering a mangrove colony. The next sequence of photographs shows how the mangroves have come about. How they penetrate and endure the salty waterfronts. The special adaptations they are endowed with to not only survive in these waters and high tides but to actually thrive in such conditions. Khatua shows the breathing roots of the Dhala Sundari (which has also lent its name to Sundarbans). The shot is eloquently understated. The caption gives the clues to unravel the entire mystery. The breathing roots take in the much-needed oxygen during a low tide. The simple adaptation makes the Dhala Sundari at home in the salt seawaters.

Clicked over a period of 15 years, the photographs do not stop at being a small course in adaptive speciation. They go one step further to reveal the linkages between mangrove and the people living along the wide coastline. One such picture shows how dependent coastal Orissa is on extracts from these trees. While the house on the shore is made from a mangrove species Hental, the villagers also use the extract to make boats as well baskets.

In fact, with time, the local deities of the people have found close association with the mangroves. Paradoxically, while these deities are revered today, the mangroves themselves are dwindling away. And as much as the illegal fisheries trade is to blame for this rampant destruction of the quite protector, so are the obdurate government practices, which refuse to understand the complexities of mangrove ecology, should also be abandoned.

Khatua says, "the government needs to learn more from field experience, this is why we have brought the exhibition to Delhi and will take it to other towns." His specific target maybe at the decision makers sitting at places distant from Orissa coast and thus far removed from the harsh realities facing the ordinary folk. But nothing stops the ordinary citizen from walking in and enjoying a good shot of knowledge and information.

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