With a singular vision of protecting the cultural diversity of India, Radhika Ganesh founded a collective called Ek Potlee Ret Ki. Today, it is working with 31 vulnerable communities in five states. We caught up with Ganesh when she was in the city recently and she dwelt on her journey which started in 2015, and how the collective is playing an important role in transforming the lives of marginalised communities by giving them opportunities to reclaim a life of dignity with the use of their inherent skills. Excerpts:
What persuaded you to take up this initiative? Currently in which states and communities is it being actively run?
Having spent my nascent days as an activist in a state like Rajasthan, where unique cultural practices are visible in day to day life, I became curious as to why cultural diversity has never been addressed as a major concern in peoples’ politics or mainstream politics. Through my engagements with marginalised communities, I realised how intrinsic culture was to their lives. I came to understand that culture, in its embodied form, was undervalued because it is never fully understood by people in urban India, academia and those in public life.
The journey began with identifying the most vulnerable communities in Rajasthan, documenting their cultural practices while living with them, which then developed into a body of work depending on what the communities considered most important and immediate to their lives and livelihoods. I was quickly joined by experienced activists — Paras Banjara, Shiv Nayal and Ramlal Bhatt — on this journey and we initiated Ek Potlee Ret Ki. The name was born out of the understanding that every element of human life and a person’s identity begins and ends with a piece of land.
Ek Potlee Ret Ki currently works with over 31 indigenous, de-notified, nomadic, semi-nomadic, occupational and hereditary cultural communities across Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Odisha.
Can you explain the nature of this initiative and what change is it bringing to the life of artisans who were otherwise compelled to choose non-skilled labour options for their livelihood?
Politics of life and land have been nurtured and sculpted by cultural identities. Language, caste, religion, food and clothing habits, occupations, practice of art and craft can all be perceived as part of these identities. Ek Potlee Ret Ki functions as an activist collective with the aim of ascertaining rights and restoring dignity to traditional/skilled occupations, while gaining a larger understanding of cultural identities and the need to expand political action to preserve these identities. We are exploring nuanced socio-political structures within communities and its impact on their art, craft and living.
The collective is making a concentrated effort to identify and document (archive) communities that are on the verge of extinction, and have for centuries preserved their skills as hereditarily transferred oral practices. All the documentation done by the members of the collective is made available on public domains, through various mediums. The idea is to make it widely accessible to increase awareness and remove any market monopoly on content.
The collective is also striving to gain an understanding of what the poor in this country perceive as “development” and what role they wish to play in it. Towards this end, we have begun working on building a peoples’ political platform called NATION (National Alliance of Traditional Indigenous Occupational and Nomadic Communities). This platform aims to mobilise members of various marginalised and disenfranchised communities to assert rights, preserve diversity in cultures, fight social stigmatisation, oppose political exploitation, and reclaim this nation as something that belongs to everyone. Through awareness in education of constitutional principles, NATION hopes to build a nation that is just, equal and progressive.
How are artisans, who were forced otherwise to work as labourers, slowly turning to their old occupations and reclaiming dignity?
In India, most cultural practices, be it performing, fine art, or craft traditions, have historically been the occupation of the lower castes and the disenfranchised. Highly skilled, yet the most impoverished, and marginalised, these communities are custodians of our invaluable cultural heritage. Sometimes tribal, sometimes nomadic, sometimes Dalit, these are people who have repeatedly faced social oppression, economic exclusion, and political exploitation. While working with them on rights and entitlements, we began to realise that they felt a great deal of dignity in being recognised as artists or artisans rather than as “unskilled labour”. Reclaiming their artist/artisan identity will also help in destigmatising their caste identities. Occupations, when understood as market viable skills, have the power to restore dignity and assure social and economic mobility to a person. Keeping this in mind, several communities we are currently engaging with, are rebuilding fading or lost traditional skills that can be utilised to generate livelihood and build a life of dignity.