College of Arts and Craft, Patna University

Jharia landscape on fire. 2020. Woodcut. 16” x 18”

It’s incredible what can account for with time. What can be alarming in retrospect has in fact taken a linear path to reach the current state – day by day, inch by inch, generation after generation.

Jharia, a mining town in Jharkand, has been synonymous with an inferno for over a century. The large scale coal mining – both open-cast and underground, has left the town and its people in a state of malignance with uncontrolled pollution and unsafe living conditions. There are undying fires beneath the grounds of Jharia, waiting to purge through fissures – new and old. 

Atanu Bakshi has cut the horrors on wood. Jharia is burning above and beneath the surface here. It’s a century-old tale, but the heat never recedes.
Underground coal mining. 2020. Woodcut. 16” x 18”

For the people of Jharia, the underground inferno is a horror they live with. And on quite unexpected moments, their town’s surface may give in to land subsidence – a phenomenon of the sudden sinking of land. Meaning, the undying fire is not a myth; it can and has surfaced anytime, anywhere in the town of Jharia.

1916 marked the very first land subsidence in the locality. So the calamity has been terrorising these lives for over a century now and has accounted for numerous deaths and property damage for the residents. Yet, respite is unsure. 

The artist portrays this uncertainty of life in Jharia, where one cannot be sure of the earth beneath his or her stance.
Coal labour. 2020. Woodcut. 16” x 18”

The labourers’ hardships in the mines of Jharia have no parallels. With the world’s coal needs and production doubling over the last two decades, mining hotspots like Jharia has invigorated activity that is ongoing. 

Another sight has become a part of Jharia’s brooding picture, that of villagers carrying scavenged baskets of coal for illegal sales. The scavenging happens at open-cast minefields. This illegally traded coal earns the villagers but meagre cash. And it is ironical, that the very horror of their everyday life is being scavenged adventurously for petty payment. 

About 2300 families were relocated to Belgaria, a nearby neighbourhood deemed safe. This is but a fraction of the population of Jharia. And for the relocated families, much of what was promised is still not delivered – job transitions, quality education and proper healthcare. 
Residents breathe uneasy. 2020. Woodcut. 16” x 18”

According to Greenpeace India’s 2021 report, Jharia continues to be the most polluted town in India, closely followed by Dhanbad, which is its nearest city. The horrific state of affairs had prompted authorities to relocate the population of more than 80000 to a safer neighbourhood. But even for the ravaging conditions that prevailed, the relocation programme was comparably incompetent. 

The population remains just about the same. They breathe toxicity that mercilessly cuts their lifespans. The relocation programme perhaps promised them fresh air, but that hope seems to have burned now. The entry of private mining bodies is making the future seem all the more feeble. They continue to breathe, but the uneasiness only rises. 
The dark side of the mining. 2020. Woodcut. 16” x 18”

Spontaneous combustion. That is the label and reason for Jharia’s perennial state of the blaze. Despite the coking coal reserves remaining largely untapped, the history of mining in Jharia is still a tale of exploitation. Everyday life has an array of hazards, while the future holds no promises either.

Mining has prospered sectors, industries and people, but its dark side remains in the dark. It lies beyond the fumes and smoke. It has nothing but poisonous traits. And it is iterative. This dark side is etched on wood by Atanu Bakshi, the way life it etched with enduring days for the people of Jharia.
The general view of an open COAL MINING is. 2020. Embossing Print. 16” x 18”

Atanu Bakshi represents a bird’s eye view of open-cast coal mining. The machines cut open the Earth here, square by square. The open-cast fields are in fact inferior in size as well as numbers, compared to the underground ones. But these are the ones visible to the eyes of a layman – a glimpse of the unfathomable horror.
The underground machines. 2020. Embossing Print. 16” x 18”

The ground of Jharia is most often a shield to the terror below it. Raging fires and smoke constantly knock from beneath, and the land at times can’t hold onto its promise. Even when seemingly stable, what is happening beneath the surface weakens the basic definition of ground. The elaborate machinery and coal trails that extend in all directions give the underground a spectacularly ominous identity here. 
Open Mining. 2020. Embossing Print. 16” x 18”

The open coal fields offer a treacherous, yet patterned view of the earth that has been dug. The patterns trace human comprehension of nature, at times effective and at times not. As the reserves are dug out, the geography alters. The landscape becomes a variable, accounted merely by time. 
Labourers and coal workers working in coal mining. 2020. Embossing Print. 16” x 18”

The residents of Jharia, which include a significant number of mining labourers are subjected to pollution of the highest degree. Moreover, they are seasoned to anticipate land subsidence due to abandoned coal fields and continual fires underground. Hope was provided in the form of a relocation programme, but it was never materialised. 
The deteriorating state of life is captured on embossing print by Atanu Bakshi, who essays the story in white, which he describes as the non-existence of colour in the life of the residents there.
 
Underground fire effects. 2020. Embossing Print. 16” x 18”

The century-old underground fires have had their part to play in Jharia’s history. It has ruthlessly surfaced, claiming lives and property. Ten-year-old Rahim and his father Babloo Khan is part of that grim history. They were striding towards home when an inferno broke loose from the ground. The accompanying land subsidence consumed these two lives. They could only be proclaimed dead as the bodies were never recovered.