The Great Outdoors

The picnicking subculture in eastern India

01 February, 2018

THERE IS A PHOTOGRAPH IN ARKO DATTO’S SERIES in which a large, almost ten-foot-tall loudspeaker dominates the frame, dwarfing a man behind it and shielding him from view. The peculiar aspect of this image is its setting, a suburban area with a river in the background: an unlikely place to stumble upon a bulky piece of equipment. Despite its incompatibility with the landscape, the loudspeaker’s wires blend in with its surroundings and other objects in the frame, including a discarded plastic bag, plate and twigs.

The presence of improbable man-made objects in an unassuming, suburban landscape occurs repeatedly in Pik-Nik, Arko Datto’s series of images, which examines picnicking as a cultural practice in regions across eastern India, including Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Datto, a photographer based out of Kolkata, began work on this series in 2013, alongside an accompanying video piece and a book which will be released later this year. Datto worked simultaneously on a project on various islands in the Sunderbans that are disappearing steadily because of rising sea levels and another project that maps the path of the Ganga across India and Bangladesh, and explores the relationship of residents with the river. His projects have many overlapping concerns, such as environmental degradation and climate change, so much so that he describes one of his images—of policemen standing on the ruins of a nearly submerged colonial fort on the banks of the Ganga—as “that feeling when your different projects on climate change, the river and picnics all come together in a heady fruition.”

Datto decided to work on Pik-Nik after a boat ride with his family on the Rupnarayan river in 2010. After returning, he heard that an overcrowded boat with picnickers had capsized close to the site he had just visited. This “tryst with death,” he said, piqued his interest in this phenomenon. Having observed picnickers over the winter months between December and February, Datto said that the sites offer a space for merriment and intimacy; the latter, according to him, is “a possibility generally absent in people’s homes.” He also emphasised the enthusiasm with which the picnickers organise their outings, with families frequently hiring buses and cooks, and transporting vats of chicken to their chosen spots. “Yet the most curious detail is, by and far, the extravagant loudspeakers that come with nearly every picnic group,” he said. “Transported in their own hand-drawn carts or mini-vans, separate generators are also brought along to pump up the electricity in the great outdoors. Songs from recent Bengali and Hindi blockbusters blare high above permissible decibels.” The festive spirit notwithstanding, the series makes subtle observations on socio-cultural aspects of public picnics, such as the environmental waste left in their wake or their inherently gendered nature. Datto explained that men and women often picnicked in segregated groups, and he had observed a latent sense of aggression, which sometimes culminated in fights breaking out between inebriated men. “Drunk on whisky and rum, men of all ages brawl, dance their hearts out or pass out, as wives, girlfriends and children watch,” he said.

Once the picnickers pick their perfect spot, the space takes on a theatrical atmosphere, transforming into an elaborate set of sorts, with all the props in place—music, food and drink. The pastoral landscape soon begins to bear markers of the gatherings, from seemingly innocuous remnants such as clothes hanging on trees, while their owners presumably take dips in the river, to more serious repercussions such as thundering noise from loudspeakers. The most discomfiting sight, perhaps, is the abundance of plastic and garbage that begins to merge with the surroundings. Datto’s image of the aftermath of a picnic, with plastic plates positioned neatly between cacti, feels like the props of a play have stayed on after the actors have left. “As the sun sets, the buses pull out, leaving stray dogs and cows to feast on carcasses, peels and leftovers amidst broken bottles and styrofoam plates,” he said.

Datto’s way of seeing focusses on the curious and the absurd, a tendency exaggerated by his chosen colour palette, as desaturated scenes of festivities impose a bleak filter suggestive of an impending apocalypse. His style of image-making can be deceptive at first: straight centre-weighted composition, a lack of jarring angles and no hyper-saturation of colour. The images are easily dismissible as banal activities recorded from a distance. However, Datto often makes subtle allusions to gender dynamics, such as the unrestrained body language of mud-caked men sprawled on the ground or the judgment in a man’s gaze as he stares at two people locked in an intimate embrace.

The surroundings in which Datto’s subjects gather are often less than idyllic—next to burning shrubs along the dry banks of the Subarnekha river, or near Kulpi, by the Ganga, beside brick kilns with smoke billowing out of them. The settings of the images are also telling of class, a characteristic that Datto acknowledged. “The very well-off or affluent people prefer to go to secluded or gated park type places for their picnics,” he said. “I look at everything else.”

Arko Datto is a photographer based in Kolkata. He won the Arles Prix Voies Off in 2017 and the Gomma Grant in 2016. He works on visual projects of his own and also curates the works of others. His interests include surveillance in the digital era, forced migration, techno-fascism and disappearing islands.

Tanvi Mishra is the creative director at The Caravan.