Devadeep Gupta: Normalisation of a Disaster
Gupta has always been drawn towards work that engages communities through values of transparency, inclusivity and accessibility –– visual arts as part of a sustainable future. Together with Hrishikesh Chowdhury, a social worker from Assam, he co-founded Northeast Lightbox, a collective in northeast India, to facilitate more accessibility in art, while generating new audiences and cultivating inclusive spaces for dialogue and exchange for art-makers and practitioners. The intention is for art discourse to be more and more public, through workshops, residencies and seminars (for artists and students alike) as well as public actions, interventions and exhibitions.
People who grow up in Assam are acquainted with the word ‘disaster’ at a rather early age. Bearing an uncanny synonymity with the phases of monsoon in the region, it is a word that has been enforced into the local psyche through a systematic acquaintance, right from innocent topics in lower school textbooks, up to repeatedly sensationalized primetime headlines in local media outlets on television screens and newspapers. People have come to accept the Brahmaputra Valley floods as a mere consequence of living in the region, with the effects of such events having been brought to a stagnant, almost hypnotic state of normalisation.
With every disaster, a clear split of demographics is observed. There are the victims and the survivors of the disaster, those who suffer the most, facing the brunt of the disaster’s repercussions. Then there are the front-line workers who orchestrate the management of the aftermath. Disasters such as the Baghjan Oil blowout bring forward a third group, the curious onlookers, the ones who make such disasters an object of spectacle to be posed, pictured, and shared with their digital network: the disaster tourists. These disaster tourists reinforce the state of normalisation within the populace and reflect upon the daily lives of the unaffected neighbours.
The Baghjan Oil blowout happened on 27 May, 2020. It caught fire through a massive explosion on 9 June after leaking gas in the atmosphere for two weeks, and continued to burn for 6 months, finally being doused on 15 November, 2020. This artificial disaster at an Oil India Limited owned site caused the displacement of more than 1,600 families who had resided in the vicinity and are currently in makeshift relief camps nearby. The haphazard organisation of such camps prevent any kind of social-distancing protocols; the villagers have mostly been left to themselves to cater for their individual and collective needs. The assessment of environmental damage caused by the blowout to the adjacent Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and the Maguri Motapung wetlands are yet to be made.