Updates from the launch of CSTEP’s eARTh initiative (climate x art) in Bangalore

As the blue stage lights descended, musician Vasu Dixit’s ‘Pyaasi’, an emotional appeal to us on behalf of rivers like the Cauvery, rang clear in the auditorium. Paani hun, paani rehne do, he sang, reminding us of voices that often get lost in text, but can reach us through music.

On 14 October 2023, the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) launched the eARTh initiative at the Bangalore International Centre. Supported by Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, and with the India Climate Collaborative as a knowledge partner, this aims to form a collective of diverse artists to better understand how art can influence climate action. In addition to stellar performances such as ‘Thermos’, the Bangalore Little Theatre’s comic examination of global warming, and songs of environmental and planetary doom from Anoushka Maskey’s EP C.E.A.S.E., the launch included a panel discussion, with artists reflecting on their efforts to communicate about climate change to the public.

We heard from lake conservationist Usha Rajagopalan, whose work to revive the Puttenahalli Puttakere lake in Bangalore is a testament to the community benefits of holistic nature-based solutions; artist Gigi Scaria, whose installation ‘The Fountain of Purification’ found new ways to bring citizens to the polluted Yamuna river; stand-up comedian and podcaster Sundeep Rao, and his takes on how humour can soften climate messaging, prompting faster behavioural change; Poornima Sukumar, the Director of the Aravani Art Project, and her perspectives on challenges underserved communities face in looking beyond immediate development concerns and seeing themselves as key to solving climate change; and, Shawn Sebastian of Drokpa Films, whose work on the Faces of Climate Resilience and Mangrove Man of Kumbalangi has led him to capture climate solutions pioneered by affected communities across India.

Vasu Dixit performing live at eARTh’s launch © CSTEP

A panel discussion moderated by Dr. Jai Asundi, Executive Director of CSTEP © CSTEP

Beyond learning about their extraordinary journeys, the key takeaway from the interactions at the event is in the many unanswered questions before us, stemming from ethical dilemmas artists and climate communicators face. How do we tell stories and weave visual narratives that align with our fight for a better world, while being cautious not to mould communities’ lived experiences to fit specific agendas? As storytellers often with urban privilege, how do we remain conscious of and respect community agency and reality in underserved areas? For many artists, their work is intensely personal and nuanced, and rather than solely advance a social cause, hopes to inspire reflection of their own lives and those they witness. In our efforts to promote climate art, how do we ensure our collaborations are nuanced and not reductive, recognising the complex set of emotions and societal considerations that drive artists’ journeys?

 

A dominant concern many of us are facing in the climate ecosystem arises from haunting headlines about climate risks, and inadequate coverage of solutions — leading to lingering feelings of helplessness and fear, which can threaten climate action. A reaction to this might be to promote art that only emphasises light, and our way out of the crisis. Yet, as attendees discussed, spreading hope through art to tackle climate gloom is not just about focusing on stereotypically ‘positive’ emotions, or about commissioning works that reflect a simplistic understanding of optimism; instead, an effective way might be to find sincerity in emotion.

Simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking, Vasu Dixit’s ‘Pyaasi’, for example, isn’t a song many of us would categorise as ‘hopeful’; it evokes strong feelings, tinged with deep sadness and regret.

 

But listening to him that day had an invaluable result — it reminded everyone in the room that, beyond our race to earn more and live better, we all still feel deeply for our natural world, and that all it takes is for someone to speak to us honestly, in a language everyone understands.

 

Therein lies the hope — the ability to listen to those who are sounding the alarm and remember things we’ve lost or deprioritised over the years, how they make us feel, and yearn to hold onto them. The ability to strengthen emotional connections that move us to act on a range of social causes urgently. Art shows us that hope is not a simple emotion, it comes in different shades and never alone, often accompanied by suffering; and, so, to move the needle on climate action and related behavioural change, as communicators, we need to open ourselves up to the entire gamut of human experience that comes with witnessing a warming world.


Read more about CSTEP’s eARTh initiative and related updates.

 

Written by Padma Venkataraman (Editorial Associate — ICC).

 

 

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