On July 3, 2020, theatre artist and playwright Pankaj Tiwari began walking the 320km distance from Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, to Calais, in France.

Together with his co-performer, Abhishek Thapar, Tiwari walked to raise awareness in Europe about the abysmal condition of migrant labourers in India, who after being displaced from their cities of work during the lockdown meant to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, began to walk back to their home villages, in many cases right across the country.

The tough get going

Tiwari himself hails from a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh – one of the main places in the country from which people leave for faraway states to find work. He calls his 320-km trek in Europe, The Art of Walking – a durational performance.

Nan van Houte, the guardian in the Dutch province of Zeeland in the Netherlands, joined Abhishek and Pankaj for a couple of hours to walk with them

When the lockdown was announced it brought India’s economy to a jolting halt, and many daily wage labourers and other workers in precarious conditions were rendered jobless, moneyless, food-less and fearful of contracting the virus in the cramped huts of the cities they worked in.

The migrant workers were so desperate that they began walking to their homes in the remote villages and small towns of India. They had no choice but to walk: trains, buses and other public transport were suspended. The streets were barricaded and most places were under a curfew. So with their families, children and a few belongings, they walked home, covering distances between 300km and 2,200km. A few of them died on the way. A few of them lost their children. A few of them were killed on the train tracks. A few survived and got home.

Thus, Pankaj and Abhishek began their walk from Amsterdam to Calais.

Walk all over the world

“The walk seeks to connect the crisis in India to an ongoing global humanitarian crisis that spells privilege as much as it spells dispossession, loss and homelessness. The walk retraces the unfortunate path of structural violence and apathy. It is a meditation and mourning,” says Tiwari.  

Pankaj and Abhishek Thapar leaving Amsterdam on Day 1 of  the walk

Pankaj and Abhishek Thapar leaving Amsterdam on Day 1 of the walk

During their journey, Tiwari and Thapar hold conversations with other migrant artists to build solidarity across Europe on many issues. They arrived in Calais at night on July 14, and ended their journey with a meal that they had cooked for 48 refugees the following evening.

The Art of Walking seeks to create a space for conversation, exercise an urgent role, and function as art in a crisis. Eighty per cent of the production budget of this project is meant for the migrant workers in India.

“I am from Balrampur district and I am the first person in my family who has actually seen an aeroplane,” says Tiwari. “Somehow I got the chance to study enough and arrived in Europe, just last September. The big cities of India have a lot of migrants from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which is my place, my roots. After the lockdown, I was looking at the images of people walking home over long distances. I was shocked.”

Pankaj Tiwari hails from a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh

Pankaj Tiwari hails from a small town in eastern Uttar Pradesh

Tiwari continues: “I wanted to do something with that, but did not know what, and how? Then I was invited by a UK festival to create a work for them. A few curators have told me that I am a migrant artist. I thought, what does it mean to be a migrant artist and a migrant labourer? How can I be rooted to my reality in this globalised world and what can I do at my end? The issues of India are not taken up in international spaces. When I looked for a migrant issue in Europe, Calais came up. I thought to bridge the two.”

The time is now

As an Indian passport holder, Tiwari can’t enter the UK without a visa. In the same way, refugees from all over the world gather in Calais, hoping to get to the UK, but are stuck. So, the final act of his performance was held near the ocean, on a beach looking towards the UK. “We made a fire and generated heat at the border,” says Tiwari. “I wanted to find a concrete way to seek solutions and also to create a dialogue on the issue of migration in the context of Europe as well as India. Using the durational performance as a framework, we are hinting at a long time and long distance.”

Tiwari’s aim was to raise enough funds to take care of about 150 families of Indian migrant labourers for four months, and also help create a dialogue in the art world of Europe about the issue of migration and international laws.

“We believe artwork should create discourses,” says Tiwari. “The Art of Walking will not wait for the art market or funding bodies or even the UN to decide that this is an important issue. The Art of Walking positions itself in the contemporary post-art market, post-UN, post-justice, post-white saviours.”

From HT Brunch, August 2, 2020

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