‘Behind the Scene’
Engagement with local communities, artists, and artisans in Barmer, India
This immersive research and pedagogical project, supported by the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, brings together diverse ways of engaging cultural and ecological practices, practices that cannot be separated from an environmental and material embeddedness in place. The focus is on Barmer, a district in the Thar Desert of western Rajasthan in India that is a vibrant and dynamic landscape inextricably woven with its people, materials, and practices. Barmer is on the edge of the desert and was historically well-connected to regions that are now in Pakistan; it is famous for artisans and musicians, but it lies off of Rajasthan’s well-trod tourist trail. Thus the district is threatened with the fall-outs of modern infrastructure and development projects that are more often than not at odds with rhythms, processes, and traditional modes of stewardship of this extremely fragile landscape.
The project brings together three scholars who work in diverse artistic fields and the environmental humanities to consider the relations between the desert landscape, modern capitalist transformations of traditional crafts, and the persistence of traditional artisanal activities and aesthetics. Anuradha Mathur works on environmental issues that span the arts and sciences, particularly with respect to how water is seen, framed, and managed. Jim Sykes studies the relations between sound, religion, and ethnic politics in Sri Lanka and India, focusing on encounters between people separated by conceptual and physical borders. Matt Neff engages the art and techniques of printmaking, as well as the material imprints in and of the landscape.
The team members hope to initiate the growth of a "living archive" of Barmer, as well as open pedagogical and research opportunities for themselves and students at Penn. In fact, Professor Mathur is engaged in a Landscape Architecture design studio for this region and curated a field trip across Barmer for Penn Students, accompanied by Assistant Professor Sykes. They were assisted in their travels by Rupayan Sansthan, an NGO based in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. In the future, she and Matt Neff, director of the Undergraduate Program in Fine Arts, plan to explore traditional printing practices in Rajasthan to inspire their own practice and collaborative teaching.