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.