EMBERS OF THE DYING FUTURE

Review by Tanishka D’Lyma
October 01, 2018

 

By Tanishka D’Lyma

 

Fire Continuum
Ronny Sen
August 23 to September 29, 2018
TARQ, Mumbai

Photographs offer a documentation of a time. One singular moment, reference, trigger of a memory that was. Fire Continuum, previously published as End of Time, tells of time that will continue as is; the beginning of endlessness, when nothing will move along with the days making it appear as though this, that is now, will last forever. 


It captures the reality that is Jharia's coal fires that have been burning for a hundred years, and along with it, the lives of the local residents. Jharia, in the Indian state of Jharkhand, was a coal mining hub that began its operations in the 1800s with the British. In the 1900s, the mining intensified but it was strategised only to ensure hurried gains. The first recorded fire was in 1916, maybe accidentally sparked – the mine incorrectly shut down, it would've allowed a flow of air to reach the deposits. After that 70 other fires broke out over 100 square miles. The mining continued. Open cast mining was introduced to the land bringing the fires to the surface at an intensity so fierce that it's been a century and the fires are still inextinguishable. The people living in the area, as seen in Sen's work, continue to inhabit the place, moving from site to site away from the fires, scavenging coal before the authorities arrive, to sell and sustain their households, in the land they labour over everyday for the same authorities. It's an unsaid agreement both parties have settled for. 

 

Jharia's story told by Sen's work eerily mirrors a catastrophiclandscape. The images portray the desolation of a place and a people, fragmented and scattered elements of life – a hut, an onlooker, torn clothes lost or abandoned. Photographs of the people of Jharia punctuates the series in a sort of response to the images that are placed before and after it, images of the corruption of a land, abuse of power, and destruction. In the pictures as they pass by an open mine with flames rising from within walking nonchalantly with a stick in hand for support and balance, their lives are one with the land. Sen brings to our notice their story, like a Greek Tragedy, as Christopher Pinney writes. But who would be likened to the noble hero and what fault of his brings on this endless tragedy? The faces they wear in these images have ceased looking to the horizon for a different life from the one they live, they have instead a look of acceptance. A man wearing a bright yellow mudded scarf, turns his back on the view now behind him, looking down. His eye is injured, he looks tired of the story weaving around him. In this manner, the series forms a pattern. The situation, ongoing, and the reaction, tolerance, in oneiric photographs so soothing to a realty just a few states away from the exhibition. 

Would you distinguish Sen the photographer from a photojournalist in Fire Continuum? Sen says in an interview in 2017 for his coverage of the student protests at Jadavpur University (JU) in 2014, that he doesn’t mix activism with his practice of photography. Things may overlap, he says, "obviously there’s a certain kind of politics embedded in the things I do. You cannot avoid politics in any work." 

 

Immense desolation shown for exactly what it is, in an immensely beautiful way. Open and vast landscapes, acres of fire-ruined, parched and still burning land, flames and above all machinery commenting on the ongoing mining work being done, despite the situation. Amidst the charred land, a white Ambassador, it’s authority not signalling prestige, stands at the centre the frame, a sky with dying light and barren land. 

 

The visual vocabulary that is layered over Fire Continuum vibrates like the call of a siren. A fire that begins in one place can quickly spread to another. With stories of destruction and negligence being reported at an alarming frequency, an apocalyptic future can be one we will come to recognise. The grainy yet soft images lull you, their easy muted tone drawing a certain doom away, yet presenting a horrid reality and a morbid landscape in a visually pleasing manner, making for the images' invitation to view an insufferable future. 

 

The series comes together in one photograph, reiterating all that has been shown and said in bits in the others. In this photograph you can see the silhouette of a tree, a flame under it and at the centre of the photograph, the two elements encompassed in darkness. A depiction of life still growing however bleak with the coal fire at the centre of it, structuring it.

Fire Continuum is Ronny Sen's second solo show in Mumbai.