Alex Napier


“ Who stands to gain and who stands to lose…?” (Medha Patkar )

The high dam established its place in the iconography of technological modernism between the two world wars; its fusion of monumentality, functional form, and power (electricity supplanted irrigation in the urban – industrial imagination ) offered emblematic possibilities too obvious to ignore. In the immediate postwar decades, large-scale, multi-purpose hydro engineering projects were touted worldwide as vectors of environmental mastery and social progress. The power dam was not conceived as a discrete entity, but rather as a node in an extensive, potentially integrated system of throughputs and reciprocal conversions of water, energy, crop yields, industry, money, which could be quantitatively modeled and measured (user – fees, acre-feet, kilowatt-hours). It was precisely this multi-functional technical rationality which excited modernist admiration.

Today, the shadow-side of such techno-environmental gigantism and ambitious social engineering has become more visible, the voices of its casualties and critics more audible. Unanticipated ecological reactions ad modes of deterioration mocked the planners’ prospectus, while the hidden social content of high cost / high risk technostructures – the specific forms of domination and dependency, enrichment and impoverishment they entail –became blatantly apparent. We are perhaps now entering the lengthening twilight of the mammoth hydro-complex; if so, the megadam era is closing with a grandiose flourish on the Yangtze and Narmada rivers. It is the Narmada Valley, in western India, which provides the setting for Patwardhan’s most recent documentary.

A Narmada Diary is a ‘sporadic/video-record’ of five years of popular resistance to the Narmada Valley Development Scheme, a gargantuan hydro-electric and agro-industrial harnessing of the Narmada river, a project deemed “vital to India’s prosperity”. This is the largest hydraulic- engineering plan yet devised (1 super dam, 29 great dams, 135 medium and 3000smaller dams, vast irrigation /canalization ), embracing 40 million people. Its central hinge is the Sardar Sarovar high dam in Gujarat, whose headwater reservoir and associated canalisation will displace over half a million locals – a great swathe of riparian fishers, farmers, and forest-dwellers, now summoned to “make a sacrifice for the nation’.

Beginning in December 1990, Dhuru and Patwardhan diarized the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement), a local struggle which attained global resonance in 1992-93, precipitating a policy crisis for the World Bank – resolved only by the termination of its funding, ostensibly at the Indian Government’s request (India is historically the Bank’s biggest customer!). The subsequent hunger strikes and voluntary commitments of movement activists to self – sacrificial drowning in the face of the continuing obduracy of the Indian and state governments reinforced the image of a powerfully rooted, resourceful and courageous movement. Through this local case, the participant camera documents the resistance of the indigenous communities of the rural poor of India to a technocratically designed, exclusionary, and coercively implemented form of development, which positions them as objects.

The opening and closing ‘entries’ in the Diary are symmetrical ; official government documentary footage extolling the irresistible benefits of a hydro – engineered and electrified rural future (“Speed and Technology”)is counterposed to images of the seemingly timeless harvest festival of Holi, celebrated in March 1994 at the village of Domkheri, threatened with imminent submergence by the rising headwaters of the dam. Linear, progressive, industrial time confronts cyclical, ritual, agrarian time. But in their closing reprise of the traditional ceremony, Dhuru and Patwardhan let us see what we can now more fully understand: the body-painted, head – dressed adivasi dancers confront and burn their demons, singling out the newest, greatest malignity of all, the Sardar Sarovar dam itself. Their ritual dance is a configuration of actuality, of living collective experience, open to history. Resistance has been integrated, innovatively, into the everyday activity, language and rites of the people of this region – overwhelmingly adivasis long scorned as ‘tribals’, descendants of the pre Aryan, aboriginal inhabitants of India. Subjugated, yet not fully assimilated, by Brahminical Hinduism and caste society, the adivasis now face environmental expropriation. They are superfluous to the re-engineered social geography of the Narmada valley.

To both belong to and appropriate this threatened human environment it is essential to walk. A filigree of tracks and pathways – from home to field, village to village, hillside to riverbank – orders the nexus of figures and landscape. We see no one cycling, no bullock carts (indeed, significantly little livestock other than poultry). Everyone walks everywhere, whether viewed in silhouette or in depth as individuals, files, or groups, the motif of walking figures signifies inhabitation of the environment. The film –makers, like Medha Patkar, the indomitable NBA organizer, have discovered the indispensability pf tireless engagement in a pedestrian way of life ( low ‘Speed’, low ‘Technology’ ) as a condition of entry into the rhythms, meanings and concerns of this world. As we pedestrianise our vision, we reinterpret the procession and marches in nearby regional towns or in larger cities as incursion of this rural tempo and motility into the more hectic, accelerated, industrialized urban space. Even on water, the boatmen walk. The simple punt is the most common means of transport – though a lyrical intermezzo, aboard an elegant, low – slung, lateen – rigged skiff, bears us effortlessly into a suspended, tropical sunset. So accustomed have we become to the walker’s appropriation of locality that it comes as a shock when, almost at the end of the film, a chauffeur –driven motorcade draws up at the dam site to unload a contingent of government, party and business bigwigs, intent on reinforcing their claim to the place. What could be more fitting than to commemorate the last rites of Chinanbhai Patel, former Chief Minister and avatar of Gujarat’s industrialisation, here at this spot and to immerse his ashes beneath the dam he promoted? As the dignitaries vow to fulfil his dream, the drivers discreetly guard the vehicles.

Time is not neutral in this conflict. There is a compelling urgently dictated by a struggle conducted against ongoing dam construction and the consequent drowning of fields, trees, temples, villages, accented with each successive monsoon season. Delay and procrastination serve the government. The diary form acknowledges this reality.

Dhuru and Patwardhan are filming an already solidly established andolan (movement) :the work of movement – building is not their focus ( there are sidelong and backward glimpses), nor do they define the movement within a historical narration. What concerns them most is to capture the idioms, repertoire and meanings of resistant protest as it is enacted, spoken, sung and danced, individually and collectively – a political ethnography of insurgency. Scrupulous attention is paid to the particularities of action and speech – and to the sensitive membrane joining / separating them. Meetings, marches, evictions, confrontations with authorities, delegations to the alien city world, celebration of success, sharings in grief – all are explored in episodes, vignettes, interviews, composed and edited to release spaces of disclosure, an intimate microscopy of political struggle.

The NBA originated as an organization to assert the claims of displaces, but was driven to extend its are of resistance into comprehensive opposition to the development scheme by a characteristic logic of movement radicalization : the critical unmasking of official rhetoric and the identification of real interests. Not only were resettlement and compensation arrangements palpably defective, but the project was contestable in terms of its economics, social inequity, environmental impacts, implications for human rights and public health.

Emergent movements are frequently personified. Medha Patkar, the articulate, impassioned, and dedicated NBA organizer and spokeswoman, was quickly identified as the catalyst of radicalization. In Narmada Diary, her intellectual, moral, and personal strength informs every frame in which she appears. Yet the film – makers show that these qualities are diffused throughout the movement. Villagers interviewed after the Kevadia rally (March 1993) demonstrate the sinewy power of situated, local knowledge, with their succinct resume of the interplay between economic, political and ecological changes in the Narmada valley (the stuff of several academic publications is presented in a few pithy observations). A young woman, volunteering for samarpan (self –immolation in the rising waters), explains herself with a reasoned dignity, made more memorable as the interview is shot nocturnally, clandestinely, unlit, while a police crackdown seeks out the activists. Sonibai and Punya, bereaved parents of Remal Vasave, a teenager shot by police enforcing a land survey, speak unflinchingly to the camera of their unbroken commitment to the andolan, as they share a funerary drink, meal and smoke with friends and relatives. After the meal, Sonibai rises, moves to the open doorway, shrouding her head and face with her sari – the film cuts to a silent dam, its sluices closed.

The andolan has deployed the weapons of the weak, notably an ability to play upon the several registers of protest legitimation which mark india’s multi – layered political culture. Utilizing a precarious constitutional legality, aware of the institutional realities of coercion and corruption, the NBA has symbolically positioned itself through its highly manifest adherence to the norm of nonviolence ( the Gandhian filiation vividly imaged in the tying of protesters’ hands). Self – understanding, solidarity, and determination are renewed communicatively in a vernacular of music, song, and dance which accompanies the events of the struggle.

The resistant musicality is seized on by Dhuru and Patwardhan, integrated into their syntax to orchestrate tempo, rhythm, movement, mood. The kinetic synthesis achieved, present throughout the film can be illustrated by one episode of dynamically fluent camera work and editing :the police operation to evacuate Manibeli villahe. From the opening shot (police lorries move in ), through initial compliance (stripped household frames; personal effects stowed for removal ) – both accompanied by voice –over – we are led to a pivotal moment of collective defiance. Two musicians emerge from the throng, sounding a tocsin of resistance: the first, an elderly man, not well fed, straining backward to offset the weight of a hugely proportioned drum, advances toward the camera, from mid -shot to close – up, until his instrument almost fills the frame. An unforgettable image. We then cut in to a carnivalesque finale of communal overwhelming of police by dancing villagers : the camera tracks slowly round as it recedes inwards to reveal the rotating circle of dancers holding hands – at its centre a bemused, captive policeman. The sequence is resolved with images of re- established bucolic routine (crops, washing of clothes ). Through the andolan’s mobilization of the plural idioms of protest – formal and informal, customary and modern, local and national – adivasi collective identity is both validated and redefined.

What of the movement’s adversaries ? their voicings, gestures, actions too allowed expressive space. A first spokesman reviews the conflict with patriarchal sublimity : “a bride cries when going to her husband’s home. The parents also cry, but they know she must go. It’s natural – once they are there, they’ll settle down.” Others advance more ‘modern’ tropes hypostasizing progress and the common good : “There is a compulsion for development…” “I am a businessman..”(not entirely true, we find). And, when the gloves are off, a predictably sinister discourse reveals itself – the same Regional Chief of the Ruling Congress Party whom we first encounter prating about “development….” (the camera eloquently panning to disclose the immaculate lawn and villa which are its fruits), reappears after the ransacking of the NBA offices, his menacing enmity undisguised : “This dog bites, don’t go near it”. And yet, despite such moments – including a strangely uncontrolled press conference with Kamal Nath, Indian Environment Minister, whose weariness and under – briefing are palpable – we sense that the “ power behind the dam”, targeted by Medha Patkar, remains elusive, a hydra frustratingly difficult to grapple with.

The sensibility materialized in this emplaced, participatory film – making is profoundly humanist and democratic. Subject – matter, technical means, aesthetic choices cohere. Take the use of director’s voice – over – non –didactic, interrogative, pared down, refusing the dissimulations of objectivistic neutrality and the banalities of indulgent self-referentiality. This is not the voice of commentary, rather that of communicative action. Similarly, the hand – held camera (video: circulating medium for contemporary social actors )seeks interactive relation with its subjects. Whether squatting, sitting, standing, or on the move, interviewees are engaged as individuals and co – equals. A man who has lost everything to the rising waters, seen over his shoulder as he stands beneath a flowering tree, terminates his own interview: “It would have been better to have died – that is al I have to say”. With this he walks away, abandoning the frame to the blossoming foliage and the man-made lake.

The dam is not neglected as a protagonist, appearing at varying stages of construction. It is seen most usually from above or at an oblique angle, it’s verticality and curvilinear monumentality de-emphasised, the image-cliché denied. Scale is often manipulated by foregrounding of protesters and villagers (though never the dam workers, who may have been inaccessible to the film-makers). We view it through perimeter fencing. It’s unseen presence looms. In one powerful interview with displaces, filmed under an overcast sky, we hear the sound of distant thunder. As we listen more attentively to the persistent rumbling, a disturbing suspicion dawns: not monsoon thunder, but the steady roar of the dam water is providing a sonic commentary on these accounts of expulsion.

These figurations of the dam prompt reconsideration of the opposing documentary interests and styles on display in Narmada Diary. In the Indian Government footage (from A Village Smiles etc.), the large-scale hydro-engineering project is represented as a gift from government to people, the dam, power-line, and irrigation canal as unambiguous, universal vectors of a better life. Even those up rooted and resettled can expect benefits. “how fertile this land is in Gujarat’s Hareswar!”, intones the government spokeswoman before her uneasy, intimidted audience of displaces. “Very fertile!”, the echo comes back. “Father Chandrya, are you sorry to shift?” – “No, No!”. A triangular positioning is set up between Sardar Sarovar,s (a fetish-form of ineluctable progress), the Government (initiates, guardians, and administrators of the fetish’s powers), and a recipient total population. This regime-documentary style, a late offspring of the ‘pylon aesthetics’ films of the 30s and 40s, is indentured to the same technological romanticism, which elides environmental mastery with social liberation. Its rhetoric of reconciliation is designed to mediate reception of Sardar Sarovar’s awesome scale and generative productivity by interpteting them into the register of typified, individual ‘human experience’. Emotionalised monumentality remains integral to this rhetoric.

Dhuru and Patwardhan’s mobile. ‘barefoot’ camera de-centres and desublimates the dam, questions its promises – “PLANNED ECOLOGICAL HARMONY AMONGST MEN, WATER, LAND, AND VEGETATION” proclaims a dam site signboard –through the discordant, oppositional presence of the NBA. The Andolan’s refusal of recipient subjection exposes the megadam – fetish and its minions to profane interrogation. As we watch, listen, and mentally assemble the materials of the Narmada Diary, a sophisticated political ecology of the mammoth hydro-complex is thematized: a critical knowledge, whether spoken in everyday demotic or the technical vocabulary of submissions to Government, the Supreme Court, or World Bank. Not “harmony”, but social polarization and hazardous ecological destabilization are imprinted into Sardar Sarovar’s gigantism. “Before Sardar Sarovar our hills had no roads. This year the roads came and forests were cut down. Now it’ll be hotter, illness will spread”. “You can’t eat or drink electricity….” Agro industrial recomposition of the countryside and swelling urbanisation –“sugarcane fields and flush toilets in the cities”, as Medha Patkar observes – will offer little comfort to the rural poor. Government research studies, implementation procedures, and bureaucratic carapacing ate probed. Cumulatively, Sardar Sarovar is demystified not only as environmental, but also political, technology.

In choosing to follow the NBA’s critical resistance to Sardar Sarovar, Dhuru and Patwardhan are not concerned merely with the outcome of a particular contest over the uses of the Narmada river, nor even with the wider issue of the social ecology of capital-intensive development. They are engaging with India’s stereotypes of collective identity and social relations; sedimented mythic, epic, religious and political constructions of purity, hierarchy, difference, otherness. One disdainful shrug of the shoulder in a Bombay hotel lobby can convey the actuality of encoded social distance. The incident, trivial in itself, occurs in an episode of grotesque incongruities and futile pursuit. NBA delegates seeking an interview with Lewis Preston, the World Bank Director, on a visit to India in the wake of the funding crisis, track him down to a fashion show apparently laid on in his and Mrs. Preston’s honour. Demanding admittance, the andolan’s representatives find their way barred by an immaculately coiffured, silk-suited dandy, whose veneer of urbane sophistication crumbles in the mere proximity of these rustic adivasis. He turns on his heels, breaking off contact – Duhru and Patwardhan accept the gift, focus their camera on the impeccably cut shoulder-line and trouser length of the receding suit. While the delegates fail to corner Preston, they so catch a phantasmagoric glimpse of Bombay’s top models doing their bit for India;s fashion industry.

Patwardhan’s work to date seems to pursue a circuitous yet consistent exploration of the varieties and perplexities of political subjectivity and identity in contemporary India. The ‘tribal’ identities – as India’s conquered, subordinated, backward ‘others’- are now being contested by adivasis themselves, their histories recovered, their self-understandings and claims redefined. Adivasis are not lining fossils, nor ethnic curios, but contemporary social actors who can contribute greatly to the democratizing forces in Indian public life.

In today’s grand masque of resistance, there are many dancers. But autonomous movements expressing the needs of hitherto despised, marginalized, or oppressed social groups, their interests in recognition and social justice, can still be distinguished from coalitions of ressentiment and spurious victimhood. There are ‘identities’ and ‘identities’….. The NBA,in its site-specific resistance, has confronted the technologies of power in India – from the power – dam, which will not benefit them, to the “power behind the dam”, those organized to command technologically transformed nature. Alternative – equitable and sustainable – relations in society. At a time when both languages and agencies of emancipatory politics are so contested, so fractured, the modesty of the observant witness may be this documentary’s subtlest gesture. 

Reproduced from PIX 2. Published and Edited by Ilona Halberstadt, January 1997