photography, research

the last village

The Last Village – Images by Elizabeth Herman

This piece was written and photos taken during the [EXPOSURE]/Aftermath Project Workshop in Ajmer, India, August 2009. Co-led by Sara Terry and Asim Rafiqui.


The Last Village
by Elizabeth Herman

The drought had begun the transformation of the village of Kankarda, sucking its lands of their productivity and people of their livelihoods.  Yet it was the railway project cutting through the center of the community that sealed its fate.  The notice came in 2004, an edict not a request, with rate fixed and an order for a signature on the dotted line: a railway is to be built through your property, please relinquish control to the government.  Options nonexistent, in 2007 families handed over multi-generational farmlands in exchange for a lump sum that wouldn’t even cover the cost of a lawyer to dispute the situation.  Progress came knocking down the door, splitting the lands and the culture of the village with the path of a train.

Kankarda has always been defined by its physical elements; the people have lived off the land for centuries, set off from city life by a winding road that weaves its way through hills and pastures on the outskirts of Ajmer, Rajasthan.  When the rains slowed nearly two decades ago, residents hoped it would pass.  They held out hope for years and years, only to have the door to their rural heritage slammed firmly closed by the oncoming railway.  And now this new, artificial physical element stands poised to redefine the way of life in the village, accelerating the generational divide that has been developing since the start of the drought.

Babu Singh, an eloquent yet soft-spoken twenty-eight year old social worker, has grown up as the influcence of modernity within Kankarda has.  He is a sort of bridge between the past and the present; his ancestors were the patriarchs of Kankarda and he feels deeply connected to the spirit of the community and ways of the old, yet he is at the forefront of progress as one of the village’s two university graduates.

In his youth, life centered on community; the physical proximity of families working together on farms, of residents sharing their lands and their days provided a cohesion and sense of belonging to an often-backbreaking existence.  But the drought, which began in Babu’s tenth year, meant little hope for future generations of farmers. Even though they held out hope that the children would one day return to the lands their grandparents cultivated, parents began to see sending kids to school, rather than keeping them home to work the fields, as the more worthwhile investment. This dual mentality was reflected in Babu’s childhood who, like that of most of his peers, split his time between the fields and school, learning both skills in order to keep his options open.

But then the railway line arrived, and with it the stark realization that Kankarda would no longer be responsible for its destiny or the future of its new generation. It was the first indicator of new India emerging around them, an India impatient for an industrial and capitalist modernity, daring its citizens to either catch up or get out of its way.  Families were forced to sell off productive lands and lost the ability to graze their cattle, which impelled Kankarda residents to seek work and education outside the village limits.  Now, Babu laments, “the village – what used to be a village, with all its connections and interconnections and social networks – is finished.”  After pausing and collecting his thoughts, he continues, “The whole closeness and culture of the farming community, of people who farm the land, of the bond – that’s pretty much done.  The family unit has been torn apart with people having to go to different places to work.”

These new livelihoods have redefined the interests of the youth; the ways of the old, of the land, do not concern them anymore. Instead city life beckons, alluring in its novelty and opportunity to define one’s own space.  While the youth spend a majority of their waking hours in the city, the connections of the village are still strong enough, or the benefits of bunking with their parents alluring enough to keep youth living in the village.  As such, city culture has begun to span the 5 kilometer commute between Ajmer and Kankarda, outfitting the youth in jeans and polos and a new sense of entitlement that leaves elders disheartened and exasperated.

Thus Kankarda finds itself at the intersection of the old and the new, with currents clashing within the confines of the town. This once tight-knit community is maintaining a precarious coexistence, with modernity gradually squeezing into the narrow pathways of the farming village.  One can see the transformation daily – in the cellphones that dot a nighttime prayer session, the motorbikes that skid past goats heading to pasture.  The contrast of the male elders’ turbans to the youth’s carefully oiled and slicked-back hair.

Expectations vary, Babu explains.  “The older generation expects reverence, expects honor from the young generation, but the younger generation is arrogant, confident, they have no time for these old people.  They are now focused on getting ahead and not on these old, traditional things.  So it’s come to the point where if the older generation shared their wisdom with the younger generation, they just dismiss it.  There is no respect, there is no value for wisdom of the old in the new generation of the modern era.”

Assuredly, there are positive aspects to such expansion.  In a mere ten years, the village has gone from three hours of electricity daily to access twenty-four-seven.  Waterlines are soon to be expanded from the city system.  Land values are rising as the city expands outward, crossing into the village limits.

Yet these material gains run the risk of overwhelming Kankarda’s ideas of home.  Those of a place where children have the freedom to roam from home to home, playing in the streets and fields with their distant cousins.  A community that welcomes a complete stranger into their world as an honored guest for two weeks, no questions asked.  A place where evening skies are met with the smell of fresh chipatis cooking over small fires in open courtyards, where mugs of chai zigzag their way through narrow streets during intimate gatherings.  In another ten years time will locks on fences have become as prevalent as the televisions that already peek out from behind wood paneled doors in virtually every residence?

Few understand how best to respond to these changes. While opinion for the railway has not been entirely negative thus far, as individuals who were forced to sell already unproductive lands were fairly happy to trade them in for a cash payment, such a sightline may not be far enough; little thought has been given to what will happen when the lump sum runs out.  Few have saved any part of their payment, with many spending on transient, material objects like food and motorbikes that hold little value over time.

But change they must. The railway line is only the tip of the wider tectonic shifts taking place in India’s economic, political, and cultural landscape; these shifts, as the nation lurches into a globalized capitalist modernity, will shake the very social and cultural foundations that have defined her society, history and heritage for centuries. And it is in places like Kankarda where these tremors are most being felt. How the residents of India’s small towns, which represent 71% of her population, survive these decades of change may well determine the success or failure of India’s march towards modernity, and what is left behind along the way.

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