Arati Kumar-Rao: In Tainted Waters
Arati Kumar-Rao speaks to Natasha Desai about her love for storytelling, the outdoors and the repercussions of the Sundarbans oil spill.
There are those who make lists of things that they should, could or would have done. Then there are those who make lists and actually set about making them happen. Arati Kumar-Rao’s list included spending time with elephants and travelling down the major river systems of the world. Both of which she has begun exploring in furious detail through photographs and words.
Loving the Great Outdoors
Growing up, Arati would visit her ancestral home where she would be surrounded by photographs of her grandfather’s botanical expeditions to the Himalayas. A botanist, he was seldom without his Agfa Isolette II.
This, in some way, stayed with Arati as she left a comfortable job behind to completely immerse herself in what she had always loved doing—storytelling. She describes herself as an environmental photographer and journalist. “To jettison everything for the love of storytelling meant that I really had to want it badly. A few years ago, the risk of an uncertain future became way more compelling than the lull of comfort. I have never regretted it.”
Enveloped in a Flow
One of Arati’s projects, The River Diaries, comes from a deep love that she has always had for the waters. “Rivers are, I believe, living creatures. They tell stories. Many, many stories. And from a very young age I have wanted to listen to those stories and record them.” She began her journey winding down the majestic Brahmaputra, chronicling traditional communities and changes in riparian ecology.
On 9 December 2014, a cargo ship rammed into an oil tanker that was owned by Padma Oil, a Bangladeshi oil company. As the vessel sank, it emptied an estimated 3,50,000 litres of oil into the Sela River, part of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Arati rushed there as soon as the news hit, arriving at the scene four days after the spill. “Men, women, and children were knee deep in the mudflats and elbow deep in heavy fuel oil. They were scraping black, viscous goo from sedges, reeds, leaves, trunks and roots. Each painstaking handful of black pulp collected was smeared off along the rim of a cooking pot. Then they turned back to the plants for more,” she wrote.
The Sundarbans is a highly fragile ecosystem of mangroves running through India and Bangladesh. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests within it. Response teams have been severely underequipped to deal with the scale of the devastation. Tools to Explore Arati began her documentation of the Sundarbans with both, a camera and her cellphone. While her tools are an essential aid in her storytelling, she does not get caught up in the medium. “I really don’t think the medium is a conscious decision. I use whatever tools I have handy to tell the story optimally. In River Diaries, I often have to use a 400mm zoom lens. This obviously means a DSLR. At other times, I have the leeway to choose. These days I find myself choosing the unobtrusive cellphone.”
The Slower Route
Another entry in Arati’s list of things to do, is walk the length of the Western Ghats,undoubtedly documenting it. This is in tandem with her love for slow journalism over the demand for instant gratification. “I detest doing in-and-out stories. For me, the real return is the deep connection that I forge with people and places. And for that I need to stay engaged. So I see my work in the Sundarbans as ongoing, a part of the larger narrative of what humans do to rivers and how we affect riparian ecology and the riparian communities.”
After diving into Arati’s world, I can only imagine her engulfing herself in yet another new community and discovering its secrets, in the future.
Much like a river snaking its way through a vast landscape, Arati will continue making her way through stories, one stretch at a time. “In my storytelling, I like to allow places and people time to reveal things… about themselves, about me.”
About Arati Kumar-Rao
She has had a career in Physics and in marketing research before taking up photography full-time. She enjoys reading the works of poets Pablo Neruda and Khalil Gibran to name a few. One of her heroes is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Salopek, who is currently retracing the steps of our prehistoric ancestors, across Africa. She admires his style of slow and investigative journalism the most. You can find her on her website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Maptia.