“This project is less about tea but more about human condition and the hopes, dreams and the everyday struggle to survive of the workers of closed and abandoned tea plantations who are suffering in the hands of big corporations involved in tea production and an incapable government system.”
When you picture tea gardens in India, it’s easy to form a picturesque image. A sea of green leaves perhaps, being picked by slight women with pleasant faces as the sun shines over heads. You visualise the women picking the leaves in sync, throwing them over their heads into the basket they wear on their backs, as we often see depicted in Bollywood films, then strolling home with beaming smiles after a long yet merry, day of tea-picking. Whether it ends up in a glass of cutting chai or a warm cup of Darjeeling’s finest, the images we hold of its initial harvest is in fact far from what the situation truly is. It’s this reality check that Ashutosh Shaktan provides most poignantly in his photo narrative titled ‘The Ugly Beverage.’
The project began in 2015 when Shaktan was still a student working on his masters dissertation on the Plantation Labour Act of 1951. He visited abandoned tea plantations in the Dooars region of West Bengal where he took some photographs which, as he tells Homegrown, would later become part of this larger project. What we see in his photographs are a clear picture of the dire circumstances of starvation, human trafficking, severe malnutrition, alcoholism, among a long list of other vices, of people left abandoned and forgotten with their prime source of income taken away. “When I came back to Delhi, I saw that people hardly have any idea of the things happening in this part of the country and what actually is the dark truth behind the world’s most widely consumed beverage after water,” he says. The project takes place in most parts in Bandapani, a small village in Dooars that’s about two kilometres away from the Indo-Bhutan border, which was a tea garden abandoned by the owners and ultimately declared shut down in 2013.
HG: What made you take up this subject?
AS: “This project ;The Ugly Beverage’ started in April 2015 when I was still studying in DSE. I decided to visit the closed and abandoned tea plantations of Dooars region of West Bengal. While working on my dissertation I also shot some photographs, some of which later became the part of the project. Most of my project is done in a small village called Bandapani, which is located in Dooars and is just 2 kms from Indo-Bhutan border. This village was actually a tea garden which was abandoned by the owners and finally declared closed in 2013.
I visited this area in 2015 and till then the image which I had in my mind of these tea plantations was totally different. But what I witnessed there was Starvation, Epidemic, Human trafficking, Severe malnutrition, High IMR, alcoholism and what not. This particular region was literally 20-30 years behind the rest of the country. I was pretty shocked when I came to know that this particular village got electricity in 2012, when in Delhi we were boasting of our Metro and our Metropolitan status. This exclusive development is not at all acceptable and is somehow responsible for the very high economic gap in our country which actually leads to such situations.
So when I came back to Delhi , I saw that people hardly have any idea of the things happening in this part of the country and what actually is the dark truth behind the world’s most widely consumed beverage after water. So these were some of the reasons I started this project. Later in November 2015, for this photo series the Visual Arts gallery of India Habitat centre declared me as one of the two winners of their fellowship for photography 2015 and that also helped me in continuing this project.”
HG: “The Ugly Beverage is a story of tea-but in a way that has never been told before”— can you elucidate on the different perspective that you are providing in your narrative?
AS: “Actually I had a very different perception of these tea gardens before I visited them and when I talked to my friends and a lot of other people, I came to know that everyone has the same image of these tea plantations. Some happy looking faces of workers plucking tea leaves in the picturesque tea gardens, that is what everyone think and visualise a tea garden to be like.
This is because the big corporations involved in this Tea business have decided to show the half truth, the half which is convenient to them. my perspective is not different it is just the other half, the inconvenient truth. Which they have decided to hide from the outside world. So my version is the version of the tea plantation workers and what I felt there while living with them. As far as the reality of situation is concerned, you can see that in my photographs, they will explain the situation better.”
HG: During your journey, is there anyone or any story that really stood out or has stuck with you?
AS: “Well this is a kind of hard question. Let me tell you, this genre of social documentary photography has its own downsides. It takes a toll on you, emotionally and psychologically. When you are out there in such situations making photographs, it makes you feel like a scavenger. Somehow it also makes you feel responsible for all the bad things happening there because you are a part of the same system which is responsible for all these things. Sometimes while working in such situations it doesn’t feel right even to have a normal and happy life because people are suffering around you. I still remember while working on this project I met this guy in a very bad condition and this was for the first time I saw human flesh being eaten away by maggots. Believe me scenes like these will never leave you. They will always stay with you and this is the cost you’ve to pay for working on such projects. This guy couldn’t survive and died a few days later. So while working there it doesn’t feel right to think about perfect exposure, composition and other technical and artistic aspects. Most of the time you are just shooting instinctively and while shooting you hardly check how your previous shot was and how your next shot is going to be, you are just trying to get it done and you keep on cursing yourself after every shot you take.
Every story there has a deep impact on me but there was one instance when while conducting interviews I met a woman in her early fifties. She was suffering from severe malnutrition and an unknown disease (most of the diseases there are unknown because people hardly have money to go to the doctors). She had gone bald because of that disease. She was living with her husband. While I was talking to them I got a message from Foodpanda on my phone about some free food offer in some fancy restaurant in Delhi. That contrast between two situations really shook me. Somehow I took two photographs and left. After two months when I was In delhi I came to know that the woman died succumbing to starvation and that unknown disease. When I visited the area next time for my project I came to know that her husband left the village after her death and nobody knew his whereabouts. Their one room house still stands in the middle of the village there. I couldn’t include those two photographs in my photo project thinking that it will help me feel like less of a scavenger but I don’t know whether it did or not.”
HG: What would you like viewers to take away from this photo-narrative?
AS: I don’t know what the viewers will take away from this photo narrative, I really have no idea. I just wanted to give voice to these people and to tell their stories and most important this photo project is what I saw and felt while living there in those closed and abandoned tea plantations. The longest duration for which I stayed in the tea garden of Bandapani is 40 days and then I had to leave when I got diarrhoea. So this project is less about tea but more about human condition and the hopes, dreams and the everyday struggle to survive of the workers of closed and abandoned tea plantations who are suffering in the hands of big corporations involved in tea production and an incapable government system. So I want viewers to know that how those people are being paid who are behind our everyday cup of tea.
Shaktan plans to continue his work on this photography project for the next few months while also applying for grants to help facilitate this endeavour to shed light on the unseen faces and lives behind the cup of tea that we obliviously sip on while reading the morning newspaper. Collaborating with a photographer from Poland, Shaktan plans on turning this photographic project into a documentary film on tea in the coming year, aiming to take this issue to a larger scale with a wider audience, bringing to the forefront the relevance of these dying gardens.
[These photographs have been published with permission from the photographer. All images have been photographed by and are copyrighted by Ashutosh Shaktan. They cannot be reproduced without permission, and any such illegal use of these images is in violation of copyright terms.]
Words: Sara Hussain