In 2016, a photograph from a peripheral coal mining town in Jharkhand called Jharia went viral on Instagram, garnering over one million likes within days. “This is a place where historically literally everyone has failed,” the caption announced of the desolation and morbidity in the lives of the women flecked colorfully against the giant darkness of the coal mining field.
The artist or photographer Ronny Sen in the same year won the Getty Images Instagram Grant for the series, christened as ‘What does end of the time look like’, from which the stunning photograph had come and the work was showcased at the Photoville festival in New York along with the work of the other winners. A year later, in 2017, his composition from this boundlessly burning town was marshaled together for a book called End of the Time. In 2o18, the collection also became Ronny’s second solo exhibition, Fire Continuum at Tarq Gallery in Colaba, Mumbai and now of the photos from the series is the cover page of Art India Magazine’s latest addition.
The recurrence and recognition may hint at the project being well planned in advance, but it was only by chance that Ronny came to chronicle this nondescript town which has been ceaselessly and callously consumed since the colonial era to cater consumerism. Traveling with filmmakers Jean Dubrel and Tiane Doan Na Champassak as a translator and producer for a French documentary Jharia, Une vie en enfer (Jharia, a living hell), the desolated grey town that was once abundant with greenery overwhelmed Sen. Not having a camera clearly did not hold Sen back. Using his iPhone 5 during the three months that he spent there, commuting daily from Dhanbad, Sen amassed around 12000 photos. “Mobile photography is the new language or vocabulary or language,” he tells me when we talk over the phone explaining that it was only in this mobile phones age that photography has now started to approached vertically rather than the traditional landscape setting. And the series he says is a reflection of the apocalyptic future that awaits mankind once it has greedily extracted everything that it could.
“Jharia is a place that has been always exploited, first by the Maharajas, then the Britishers and the corporate conglomerates who don’t care about the communities living there. This is a manmade landscape and with the ceaseless exploitation, no photo in this forever burning land can be the same. This is why it’s called fire continuum,” he says adding that Jharia may have been the subject of the series, but it also serves as the representation of all those regions in India that have been forcibly made to lose it climatic equilibrium due to industrial interventions.
The stunning exhibition is accompanied by an insightful essay by Christopher Pinney that traces the history of Jharia where the first coking mills for coal extraction started way back in 1984 and the fire has continuously protruded since 1930 when the collapse of two 2600 feet deep shafts resulted in a fire. The ethereal and disturbing images, Pinney observes, makes for a relevant view for the audiences who are living in the times of environmental emergency unfurling across the globe with record temperatures, extreme weather conditions, bleaching of coral. The essay also talks about the striking image, which Pinney calls sardonic, of white Hindustan Ambassador at the center of the desolate landscape. Once a sign of an independent India advancing towards modernity as captured in the work of legendary photographer Raghubir Singh celebrated work A way to India, explains Sen, the classic Ambassador now is a cue for the coal pickers to disperse in fear at the arrival of the corrupt Babus.
“That corrupted money is called black money and the politicians and bureaucrat surrounding themselves with whiteness whether with their cars or their clothes is no coincidence. It is reflective of racism and exploitation in the country,” says Sen.
If there is a political tenor to the series, clarifies Sen, it is neither intended nor avoided. “No matter what you make, you can’t avoid being political because art, in the end, is what but a self-portrait of the artists and a reflection of their ideologies. My practice is to express and then leave it to the viewers to interpret it themselves. My expression and the experience of those who witness these photographs are individual. I see it as a mystery that reveals itself in the face of the truth so I don’t propagate anything,” he says adding that he desist the ‘tokenism’ and use of social issues as a crutch for self-promotion. “It is very easy to criticise in India, to have an opinion about everything, but when it comes to taking a clear stand, how many do that?” asks Sen. His indifference to categorize his work as political or protesting also comes from his family, which he says has been a part of many civil society movements through the years.
“Struggling is a way of life and there is nothing to brag about fighting for your fundamental rights. It’s basic.”
As our chat veers back to the medium of photography, Sen reflects on its place in the artistic sphere as opposed to traditionally visual and modern conceptual art.
“A photographer has no competition. Photography has always been on the fringes and it will always be. Photographers are done trying to live up to the tag of ‘artists’. We don’t really care,” he says dwelling on the mutual indifference between the public opinion of photography as an art and the photographer’s expectation of it.
Sen who has transitioned to the medium of cinema this year with Cat Sticks, a black and white feature chronicling the desperate maneuvers of three Kolkata brown sugar addicts on a rainy night, and find filmmaking more complicated owing to its collaborative nature, says he is not just open to making more movies but also to the other forms of art to express himself. However, he also firmly believes that art must never be created for the heck of it. Which is why it comes as no surprise when he tells me that there are stretches of periods, sometimes months when he doesn’t even touch his camera.