“The first light that entered our one room home was from a roshandaan near its entrance. It got projected on a wall opposite my bed. That was my first television and shadows my first show. I would lie there watching it, entertained.” Randeep recounts his childhood experiences of growing up in a Dalit landless household in Maddoke, a village in Moga district of southern Punjab.
These experiences and this eye to spot beauty in patterns and shadows stayed with him thereafter. It became more piercing and led him to become a professional photographer. As a child, he studied in a government-run school, where he grew fond of books. The first book that struck him was Roos Da Itihaas (A History of Russia), a well-designed book with paintings printed on a fine paper. He was enamoured of it.
Randeep then started to draw. He sent his works to the annual festival organized by the activist groups of the region. It won him awards and praise. He later joined an activist group and began working with them. He bicycled through villages in his district and the neighbouring regions, organizing meetings on labour and farmers’ rights.
The family could not support his studies after Class 12. So he took up odd jobs. He did agricultural labour, daily wage labour in town, and painted houses; and he continued organizing labourers from his community. He began a theatre group in his village. Yet his pursuit for beauty and social justice remained unfulfilled.
Then, he came across a newspaper advertisement about admission to the Government College of Art, Chandigarh. At the age of thirty, after eight years of labour and activism, he sold the small plot of land he had inherited, and began a BFA in the big city. He studied painting and chose photography as an optional subject. He borrowed an old camera from the garage of one of his activist friends. By the time he graduated, he had realized that he was interested in photography, for the kind of things he wanted to express.
It has been ten years since. His first photographic project was Mirage: A Study of Shadows. His recent project on the paradox of the prosperity of the green revolution took him to Dalit neighborhoods of southern Punjab. He is documenting the socio-economic aspects of landless labourers in the regions, where there have been reports of farmer suicides. The focus of media and activist groups has been on landowners but effects of agricultural crisis in the cotton belt on lives of those who depend on land are under-documented. He has also followed the right to common land movement by Dalits under the aegis of Zameen Prapati Sangarsh Committee. He is now expanding his canvas and his next work will seek to tell the story of the landless laborers with the moving image. The documentary project titled, ‘Landless’, is due to be released this year.
The accompanying photo essay is from this very project. Two girls are sitting with their back to the camera against a vast expanse of wheat crop; across the green frontier, a concrete structure looms large. The camera captures their fear of the surroundings. The colorful bales of chaff in a harvested field evoke a celebratory sense, but when you read the story behind those colors, this sense dissolves in despair. Labourers cleaning the grain in the market throw a pattern of sickle in the air. The story clears the air about issues in the hammer and sickle politics. A young girl is collecting cotton wool and another child is ‘separating grain from chaff’ and Randeep underlines, ‘it is labour, it is obligatory / the school is faraway/ for food, it is necessary / it is labour, it is obligatory’. The last two photographs are of families of landless labourers ‘left behind’ after their sole earning hand decided to end their life stifled by the endemic poverty and indebtedness.
Randeep suggests that the market drives the contemporary visual language of photography. The individualistic, commoditized image is being propelled to the forefront. He is looking to stay away from the contemporary style of image-making and wants to try out new possibilities.
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