A digital museum uses art to keeps the conversation around water flowing

A digital museum uses art to keeps the conversation around water flowing
October 05, 2019 Events

In 2014, Sara Ahmed attended a powerful exhibition on Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She was deeply moved to see Islam represented in association with art and beauty, as opposed to war and terror, an unfortunate but inevitable association in today’s context. But what moved her even more perhaps was the sight of several objects of beauty that centred around water – tiled water fountains, storage pots, utensils, water carriers.

Water is close to Ahmed’s heart. With a doctorate in environmental sociology from Cambridge University, the adjunct professor at Ahmedabad University and one of India’s foremost voices on water and gender had noticed how the narrative on water in the development sector and its scarcity in India was so divorced from the world of art. Unlike several other countries, India was lagging far behind in exploring how to use art to raise awareness about the significance of water, its frightening scarcity, its role in developing societies and the urgent need to preserve it and its associated heritage.

Living Waters organises events with outreach activities for school children

A decade earlier at the Alburquerque home of Basia Irland, a friend, sculptor and a professor of art and art history at the University of New Mexico, Ahmed had been dazzled by Irland’s collection of water-related objects from her travels across the world. Irland, now 73, has spent a lifetime dedicated to water, its scarcity and waterborne diseases. At that time, a dialogue began between Ahmed and her on the possibilities of interspersing art with development initiatives and creating a larger conversation centered around water in India.

Though the idea of a water museum in India had taken root in Ahmed’s mind so many years earlier, the concept remained as obscure to her as it may sound to most today. What is a water museum? Why would water, something associated with constant movement and flow, need to be “stilled” into a museum? The idea of a museum in India is typically associated with dusty, musty spaces dully attempting to preserve relics from the past. How can something that is so elemental, so free-flowing, be captured, preserved or “held” in a museum?

Ahmed immersed herself in learning more about the intersection between the arts and water globally, recognising the importance of using the arts to engage society with the critical nature of water, its relevance in our lives and its fundamental role in societies and communities. Water could no longer continue to be taken for granted – it was way too scarce already. There was also no reason, she felt, why the arts and the development world should work in silos.

A stepwell in Abhaneri, Rajasthan

In 2017, Ahmed was invited to participate in the Unesco-supported launch of a Global Network of Water Museums, co-organised with the Water Museums of Venice. “This helped me understand how other water museums are structured and the potential for museums, whether physical or virtual, to raise awareness of innovative traditions of water management and their relevance to our complex water challenges,” she explains. She’s now on the governing board of this global entity endorsed by Unesco’s International Hydrology programme. Recently the Indian government also decided to build a physical national water museum in New Delhi and Ahmed has been roped in to advise on this project too.

Meanwhile, another plan of action occurred to Ahmed. Acknowledging the multiple difficulties of having a physical space dedicated to water – it would be expensive, static and unchanging -- she felt it would be better to create an interactive space with the use of web-based tools and technologies to engage the youth and children. A dynamic ever-changing flow that would be characteristic of the subject it represents – which was how the idea of a digital platform called Living Waters emerged.

Ahmed also felt that while a lot of work on resuscitating ancient water systems, step-wells and storage tanks has been done, this history was primarily recorded in expensive coffee table books that few could afford or even access. How would the young or those who couldn’t afford such material ever understand their own staggeringly beautiful and remarkably practical water heritage?

A stepwell in Hampi, Karnataka. Suraj S Rao / Wikimedia Commons

Another challenge: if the subject Ahmed is trying to raise awareness about remains so esoteric even to its creator, how would the ordinary citizen engage with or even grasp the concept? To overcome this, the Living Waters team earlier this year started organising a series of events in Ahmedabad, to begin with, to complement the virtual world with outreach activities at schools and public places to appreciate the value and heritage of water, its pivotal role and contribution to society as it has evolved over the centuries and the urgent need to preserve it. Ahmed realises that meeting the bigger challenge – inducing a change in people’s behaviour towards water – may prove more elusive than increasing their awareness of it. But that is, of course, the ultimate goal.

In February 2019, around 200 children collected at Ahmedabad’s Sarkhej Roza to attend an event that celebrated India’s water heritage. The event started with a heritage walk, followed by a story-telling session and concluded with a drawing activity. The event, titled “Jal aur Kal”, was an attempt to start a dialogue around something we take for granted. This was followed by “Jal me Sheher, Sheher me Jal”, which showcased four films including an animated video on the invisible consumption of water by NID student Swarnika Nimje. Two films that told the story of Gujarat’s Sabarmati river were featured at the event as well.

The Living Waters team also curated two digital exhibitions -- Water Varta (Conversations) and Women, Water and Work. For the former, the team collaborated with Ahmedabad’s famed Vishalla Restaurant and the Vechaar Museum of Utensils to look at the relationship between water, food and cultural practices through the stories of water pots. After a short lull for the summer, earlier this month, Living Waters, the Ahmedabad University bookstore and the Project Otenga café co-hosted FLOOOW, an evening of poetry, storytelling and films where a diverse group of young artists shared their thoughts on how to engage with communities, children and youth on sustainable and just water futures.

The event will be followed up by others, all geared to the final launch of the Living Waters website. It is currently in the process of being redesigned as a holistic museum experience with galleries to “enter” and “exit”. Since most virtual museums emerge from their physical avatars, this project is having to chart its own course. As lead curator, Ahmed’s challenge is to shape the Livingwatersmuseum.org into an entity that not only informs and educates us but helps effect a change in how we engage with that most basic – but most valuable -- of resources.

Note: This article was originally published in  in the weekend issue of the Business Standard, Mumbai
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