Withering - PhMuseum

Withering

Zishaan A Latif

2015 - Ongoing

Withering is an endeavour to document the 'drowning state of existence' of the river island of Majuli in Assam. It is a catastrophe caused by the aggressive river Brahmaputra. The aim is to reflect on the larger consequence of climate change and displacement.

A segue of this project is the documentation of a disappearing, mystical and culturally rich environment; an organic community which presents itself as an alarming example of the issue of sustainability that the world must take cognisance of.

On the island, we traverse a fading ancient culture, the desperation to be afloat, a human engagement with nature palpable in their routine as they plough their fields, fish and weave tradition into the everyday, which make them feel alive even if for that moment, yet that silence persists, an all pervasive calm before the storm.

Majuli, in the river Brahmaputra, was once the largest river island in the world. Organic agro-farming is the primary occupation of most of the 1.70 million residents, mainly of the Mising, Deori, Sonowal and Kachari tribes. The island is widely regarded as the cradle of the Ahom civilisation and the fountainhead of neo-Vaishnavism in Assam, India.

The 2,900 km river originates in Tibet as the Tsangpo, flows through Arunachal Pradesh as the Siang, and becomes the mighty Brahmaputra in the Assamese plains. It is prone to catastrophic flooding every year when the Himalayan snowmelt combines with unrestrained monsoon downpours. The evidence of climate change is harsh and rapid on the island as it is disappearing faster today, than ever before.

By the year 2000, even satellite imagery starts to get glitchy, a symbolism that cannot escape us in times of surging technology - an irony to the say the least. The physical displacement is seen in a digital world with each consecutive year, communicating the palpable shift on ground zero.

Tanvi Mishra, a curator, critique and photo editor at the Caravan magazine observes, "It serves a function similar in ways to a ticking clock—a reminder that the life in the photographs occurs but the changing landscape is always a looming presence rather than a backdrop."

To better comprehend the Withering of Majuli over three decades, the photographs have been merged with satellite imagery between 1984 and 2018, to form a grid (1984-1994-2004-2014) with subsequent decade shifts to experience actual change, courtesy Google Earth.

Today, Majuli faces extinction due to erosion. Huge chunks of the island are falling off into the Brahmaputra - its landmass is down by a fourth already! According to records, in 1800 the total area of Majuli was 1,150 sq. km. and about 33% of this landmass eroded in the latter half of the 20th century. The most recent satellite imagery from 2016 shows the island's landmass at just 524.29 sq. km.

The causes of this mass devastation are innumerable. Complications, including ill-planned construction and dams, lead to agitated waterways and irreversible damage. To add to this, corruption is rampant through the blatant misappropriation of funds meant to be allocated for prevention and rebuilding purposes.

People quietly rebuild their lives over and over, watching the establishment’s futile efforts to manage the disaster and knowing that they must work with nature, not against it. From the overcrowded ferry manoeuvring to avoid the shifting sands, one sees how the river slices through land, constantly eroding from one bank to deposit on another, without design or purpose.

My relationship with Majuli is surreal. Majuli is enchanting in ways that it calls for me to return, a call to hear its soul, to experience it fully in all its forms and fury, in its many shapes and beauty. Majuli’s appeal lies in its fractured landmass of persistence, where the inhabitants try to survive every jolt that nature unleashes upon them, coupled with bureaucratic incompetence and misappropriation of funds meant to protect the island.

Majuli is engulfed in its silence, the silence of loneliness and the resilience embedded within it, a forgotten landmass it is, with a questionable and crumbling future. As the river breaks, bonds, and binds again and again, so do the islanders.

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  • 1984 & 2018

  • 1985 & 2018

  • 1986 & 2018

  • 1987 & 2018

  • 1988 & 2018

  • 1994 & 2018

  • 1995 & 2018

  • 1996 & 2018

  • 1997 & 2018

  • 1998 & 2018

  • 2004 & 2018

  • 2005 & 2018

  • 2006 & 2018

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  • 2008 & 2018

  • 2014 & 2018

  • 2015 & 2018

  • 2016 & 2018

  • 2017 & 2018

  • 2018 & 2018


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