TW: This article contains references to suicide.
India is primarily an agrarian country. What does that exactly mean? It means that approximately 60 percent of the Indian population works in the agriculture industry, contributing about 18 percent to India's GDP. That means roughly 85 crores of our nation’s people are employed in the agricultural sector. These glaring numbers leave no room for doubt that a large portion of our nation’s economy rests on the shoulders of honest hard-working men and women, who toil in the fields under the scorching sun, growing the food that fills our bellies. Now, I have some more statistical data for you. In 2020, the number of suicides of people from the agricultural sector was over 10,600, most of the victims hailing from rural Punjab.
Life is beautiful but sometimes circumstances are so dire you cannot hold onto this beautiful thing. These people who lost their lives are not mere statistical numbers. They were fathers, brothers, sisters, wives or friends — real, breathing human beings who held personal significance for the people in their lives. There were several protests and newspaper coverage and even though the Farmer’s protests had gained momentum, eventually they fell on deaf ears to those in power and capable of changing the ground realities of the agricultural sector in India. Words fall short trying to articulate the magnitude of the loss of this nature. That’s when art steps in to fill these empty spaces.
Today, we explore a hard-hitting, evocative and powerful photo series titled So Much Water so Close to Home by Parth Gupta which delves into the profound and heartbreaking realities faced by the local farming community in rural Punjab. Through powerful imagery and storytelling, the series sheds light on the tragic consequences of rapid industrialization, urban migration, and systemic failures in the pursuit of unchecked economic growth.
One of the focal points of the series is the Bhakra Main Line Canal, a 164-kilometer-long waterway that traverses Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan. At Khanauri, a haunting location along the canal, water gushes out of a sluice gate, creating a floating ground for corpses. The air is heavy with the stench of decay, and the water, caked with garbage, often carries the weight of lifeless bodies. This grim scene has given rise to an entire industry of divers who retrieve the bodies for the grieving relatives of missing persons.
The series also takes us to the villages within the Sangrur district, where The Baba Nanak Educational Society recorded a staggering 72 cases of suicides in 2017 alone. The victims, predominantly from rural Punjab, were burdened by enormous debts ranging from INR 2,00,000/- to INR 10,00,000/-. The spike in suicides can be attributed to factors such as exorbitant interest rates, crop yield losses, plummeting crop prices, escalating healthcare and education expenses, and the migration of employment to the service sector, which has led to the deterioration of agriculture in the region.
Despite the immense tragedy faced by the rural community, the government's response has been passive, and they've largely failed to acknowledge the gravity of the issue. The absence of mental health institutions further exacerbates the precarious situation, leaving the future of the community hanging by a thread. This series serves as a poignant reminder of the dark void of loss that looms over Punjab, a state once celebrated for its agricultural success. The photo series, through its evocative imagery and storytelling, aims to raise awareness and provoke reflection on the urgent need for change and support for India’s agricultural communities.
Can a nation’s growth simply be measured by data like GDP or the net wealth of each billionaire in the country? While we continue to live within our invisible walls of privilege, poignant photoseries like these get us thinking about the things that matter. After all, can you eat a roti made of gold?
About the photographer:
Parth Gupta is an accomplished photographer based in New Delhi, India, known for his unique vision that combines abstract architecture and a humanitarian lens. With a focus on documenting life, spaces, moments, and the people he encounters, Parth's photography showcases his exceptional storytelling abilities. Alongside his artistic pursuits, Parth is also actively involved in commercial visual work, utilizing his skills in photography, design, and art to deliver captivating and impactful results. Through his dedication to pushing the boundaries of his craft, Parth Gupta continues to make a significant impact in the world of photography and visual storytelling.
In a candid interview with Homegrown, Parth spoke about his journey as a photographer, his influences and how his experiences creating the photo series So Much Water so Close to Home:
Have you chosen to make 'So Much Water so Close to Home' a black & white photo series to thematically complement the subject matter?
Most of the work has been shot during winters amidst mist-laden farmlands which rendered the overall atmosphere as visually subdued and nearly monochromatic. This primarily led me to choose black and white for the series. I also feel that at times black and white imagery can be a powerful device to further drive the narrative in stories of such nature while narrowing down the focus on the subject matter.
What was your experience like when you visited rural Punjab and interacted with people who have experienced first-hand such grievous losses?
It has been a very humane and grounding experience. In my interactions with families and individuals, I was confronted with the raw, unfiltered truth of human suffering and the adversities that our communities endure. My experience left me afflicted as I witnessed their profound sense of loss and state of helplessness due to many financial and structural constraints. Their urgent need for change resonated with a profound gravity that continues to echo within me.
Your photo series exhibits the immense power of art to articulate tragedy. Was there something that inspired you to pursue it?
I won’t say that I was ‘inspired’ to pursue this series. The project started as an inquisitive photojournalistic series of reporting and documenting the unfortunate plight of the rural families of Punjab. Over time as I visited many families in the district of Sangrur, the project gradually shifted to incorporate an understanding of the nature of loss and the systemic barriers that often work against the destitute families of the region. The stories of our fellow people are not just some sensational media pieces, they carry a deep sense of human affliction and require a gravitas for change to lead better lives. My motivation for the series is rooted in a desire for societal change and improvement in our communities.
Often things like farmer suicides become a statistic in a country like India. Yet, through your photo series, you immortalize the lives that have been lost. Are there any similar works that have left an impact on you?
While the following might not be photographic works or of the same nature as my series, I feel they portray a similar sense of loss: -
Edvard Munch’s Melancholy
Hiroshima, Mon Amour a film by Alain Resnais
A Little Life, a novel by Hanya Yanagihara
Are there any projects that you are currently working on?
While not of a documentary nature, I have some personal projects in the pipeline but they are in very initial stages and need more articulation for me to talk more about. I am also focusing on learning videography and 3D rendering software to further incorporate into my current practice.
Who have been your primary influences in your journey as a photographer?
Photography started as a naive act of voyeuristically reliving memories through family albums or capturing random pictures of squirrels who didn’t run away. But the recent years have been about finding my way back to a medium that I almost abandoned. Due to many self-induced reasons, I departed from my photographic journey for 3 years between 2019-2022 wherein I barely picked up my camera and nearly halted my entire creative outlet.
While earlier in my career I would say the influences are the studies of artistic pursuits of Edvard Munch or the borderline transcendental nature of Trent Parke’s work, I think currently most of my work is influenced by the study of self and the stillness of life. As I learn more about the ‘solace in solitude’ I find myself captivated and intrigued by the estranged objects within our lives. For now, photography is a meditative practice wherein I am learning again to see the flutter of light on the bark of a tree, the nuances in the shades of color, or the impressions of life left behind on the faces of many. I am in a way trying to live again, a life where I can find warmth and a semblance of existence and I feel that in itself is the biggest influence in my pursuit as a creative.