Seeing the forest and the trees

Show depicting plight of Odisha’s downtrodden at the hands of India's richest has parallels in Nepal


Every once in a while comes an art exhibition that is not just aesthetically pleasing and tasteful, but raises piercing questions about human rights, equity, and justice.

And there is one such unique, yet unsettling, exhibit on the upper section of the Nepal Art Council in Baber Mahal that will go in till March 2024. 

The  Sovereign Forest is certainly not art for art’s sake. It is a  multimedia installation of film, large books, as well as artefacts from the mineral-rich but dirt-poor Indian state of Odisha where indigenous people have been driven out to make way for natural resource extraction.

Visitors step into sudden darkness, and it takes time for the pupils to adjust to the dim interior. Unlike conventional exhibitions, this one is purposely designed to evoke outrage at the blatant injustice and oppression that underlies the plunder.

The show invites a new kind of engagement that challenges perceptions and expectations in which various art forms are curated to shock observers out of apathy and recalibrate their moral compass.

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The  Sovereign Forest is put together by the Indian filmmaker Amar Kanwar and offers a compelling and immersive narrative through a blend of visuals, artistry, archival materials, and the screening of a  documentary. 

Kanwar has been documenting through art the activities of the mining-industrial complex and how it has impacted the farmers and indigenous communities in Odisha. Some Nepali visitors may not immediately find a connection to one of the less known and underserved states in India, but the greed and abuse that drives the extraction machinery there has parallels to what is going on here.

Kanwar’s exploration of exploitation is projected powerfully through a unique narrative style devoid of a concrete subject. Some in the audience might be lost, and engaging with Kanwar's message demands patience as he intricately unravels the story of an activist killed during a farmers'  protest, and goes into the profound grief of a woman mourning his loss. 

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The film's captivating visuals immerse the audience in the farmers' plight, offering us a window into the destruction of nature and the people who have traditionally lived in harmony with it.  

The  Sovereign Forest is divided into four distinct spaces, inviting audiences to interpret the essence of the Constitution and what it means in reality on the ground. Kanwar’s visual depiction of the funeral of Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chattisgarh in 1991, and flashbacks to the activist’s premonitions of demise through the text of the cassette records and diaries add a haunting dimension to his story.

There are revelations of injustices perpetrated by India’s and the world’s richest conglomerates: the Jindals, Tata, and the Korean company, POSCO.  It is an age-old story of the struggle of those who live off the land against those who want to own it. 

The show also exhibits 272 seeds meticulously preserved by a farmer in Odisha, and forces us to think about native seeds that are being driven into extinction by hybrids. This has resonance in Nepal, where seeds adapted to Himalayan microclimates and soils are similarly being replaced by high-yield monocultures that need expensive inputs.

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“There is an urgent need to explore similar untold stories also in Nepal,  shedding light on communities marginalised in the name of progress,  modernisation, and industrialisation,” says Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati of that brought Kanwar’s exhibition to Kathmandu.

“It forces us to reflect upon and connect with the struggles faced by indigenous groups also in Nepal, and offers a deeper understanding through art of the socio-economic challenges of development,” she adds. 

Replace Chhattisgarh with Chure, and Shankar Guha Niyogi with Dilip Mahato and suddenly it becomes clear that the Sovereign Forest is also about us.  It is a clarion call for citizens to struggle for justice and morality against the acquisitiveness of the big, rich, powerful entities.  

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Ultimately,  The Sovereign Forest can spur solidarity and action against structural inequity and abuse of power not just in Odisha, but also in Nepal, 500km away to the north.  

The Sovereign Forest 

by Amar Kanwar in collaboration with Sudhir Pattnaik, Samadrusti and Sherna Dastur 

Nepal Art Council 

Till 31 March, 2024

Alisha Sijapati


Alisha Sijapati is a correspondent at Nepali Times. With over a decade of experience she specialises in cultural heritage reporting with insights into socio and geo-politics. She holds an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies from Central European University. Alisha has made significant contributions to various newsrooms in Kathmandu. Beyond her journalistic endeavors, she is deeply engaged in discussions about the theft of Nepal's stolen heritage.

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