Staff Blog: From Tamil to Torrin, comparative natural histories

Kevin Lelland, the Trust’s Head of Communications and Membership, catches up with a renowned Indian artist and environmental campaigner

Kevinlellandimageofraviagarwal detail

Ravi Agarwal was back in Scotland for two days in early November. He'd come to meet with the expert printers who are helping produce artwork for his 2018 Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition that will compare Scotland and India's wild landscapes.

In preparation for his show at Edinburgh Printmakers next year, Ravi toured some of the land in our care this summer. This included travelling north to meet Don O’Driscoll, the Trust’s property manager at Sandwood and Quinag.

“It was such a pleasure to meet Don. He was a real man of the forest," said Ravi. “He was so excited to show and explain things to you. It showed me there is so much to know about.

“I am interested in the history of landscapes, and how they become what they become. We have shaped landscapes for so many years. Yet, just because we have the ability to change and manage land and nature, it doesn’t mean we should. There’s not enough ethical debate about this locally and internationally.”

It’s my second time meeting Ravi but, unlike earlier this summer when we strolled and chatted for several hours in woodland on the edges of Schiehallion, today is more focussed on hearing from him on how that visit will be translated into an artwork.

Common themes

He tells me that as he’s researched this project he’s uncovered many common themes of landscape alteration and displacement between Scotland and India. This includes “parallels between the extermination of the wolves in Scotland and the current decimation of big mammals in India”. He says that the tiger in India currently has a population of around 4000, yet in the near past they numbered hundreds of thousands.

Ravi says this is an example of "recent histories" where the timeline; scale of industrial development processes; the diversity of the big mammals, or the size of populations involved in each country might be different - but the underlying issues, the removal of a people and animals due to landscape management is the same. 

These recent histories include forestry management. “There’s a long connection between forest management in Scotland and India. The first commissioner general for forestry in India was a German, but he was sent from and following a request to the then Forestry organisation in Scotland.”

“Under his lead the first attempts to set-up and manage forests in India was an abject failure, as the climate was so different. But they learnt quickly and while we know about the long and complicated history of colonial rule, there is also a separate and interesting history of forest management itself.”

Literacy and nature intertwined

Another comparison Ravi makes is in the use of language and how literacy and nature are intertwined.

“I’ve been working with fisherman in India for many years, looking at the Tamil culture that dates back to 300BC, and the role of landscape poetry in their lives and as a form of cultural history. I was reminded of this in Scotland by Gaelic and how we can use the language to get a sense of what the historical relationship between people, nature and the landscape was. You get the impression in both cultures that it wasn’t a dominant relationship, it was more contemplative and vulnerable.”

However, Ravi’s artwork isn’t just rooted in historical comparisons. He’s also interested in how this supports us to think about the future.

“I am also interested in what is happening at the moment- the Anthropocene - and the pressures currently removing nature from the world. Visiting with projects like the John Muir Trust I was amazed that communities of people are willing to buy land to preserve it for its own sake. There would be very few examples of this in India. It shows what the possibilities might be. Language and art are symbols of how we think about things. What you can imagine, you can re-imagine or un-imagine and it’s vital to try and do this.”

Talking with Ravi reminds me that the broad themes we encounter at the Trust are also being played out in other parts of the world, and that an artistic partnership like this can help shape a wider understanding of conservation challenges we all face.

About

Ravi Agarwal is an artist and environmental campaigner from India. His as yet unnamed exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers - featuring lithographic prints, video and text - will be part of the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2018 and in support of the John Muir Trust. The festival will also feature a wild landscape panel discussion with Ravi Agarwal and the Trust's Head of Land Management, Mike Daniels.

Image credit: Kevin Lelland