Almost a year ago, when life was on a smooth lane, the popular hill town of Mussoorie, in Uttarakhand, was awestruck to find a woman sketching larger-than-life images of people on the town’s walls. She was none other than well-known Goan artist Harshada Kerkar. And her models for the sketches were the ‘safai karmachari’ or the sanitation workers and waste handlers of Mussoorie. “I chose to do portraits of sanitation workers to highlight their role in society and also to empower them,” the artist would explain in a media interview.
Kerkar was invited to Mussoorie by the Hilldaari movement, an initiative of Nestlé India, to focus on the important role played by waste workers in our country. One of their ideas was to create awareness through artwork on public walls and Kerkar was a perfect fit.
According to Mayank Tandon from the project team, the main idea is to collectively clean up the cities by instilling a sense of responsibility and respect among different stakeholders, and systemically transforming the waste management process. [The initiative has been taken to other cities since then.]
“Since a long time, I have been doing portraits of migrant labourers and safai karmcharis,” said Kerkar. “But they were exhibited in art galleries. I thought this [Hilldaari] was a good opportunity to take art to the masses.”
But it was not imaginary people or situations that the artist chose. Kerkar based her black-and-white charcoal sketches on the real people who toiled to keep the hill station clean and garbage free, especially during peak tourist season.
Tagged ‘Deewaron Par Dastak’ the sketches were an attempt to generate awareness and empathy for the contribution and rights of different kinds of waste handlers, including household waste collectors, sweepers, rag- pickers and sanitation workers. As Hilldaari mentioned on its Facebook post, “A big salute to waste professionals who have been tirelessly working for our community for years, but they seldom get the respect they deserve.”
Initially, bystanders thought she was sketching portraits of religious or political leaders. “When I revealed to them who the models were, their expression would change completely. It made them think,” she said. For most it was a ‘knock on the conscience’. “It is scary to hear stories of how we treat our own people because they belong to some particular caste.”
On the other hand, the sanitation workers and rag pickers were happy to pose as her subjects. “Most of them were extremely pleased. They felt like a hero,” the artist said. A woman who collected door-to-door waste, a ragpicker, a sweeper, a man who segregated waste, even the driver of a garbage van, all posed for Kerkar. The sketches were like a beacon of hope for these people, of being recognised as a dignified and respectful human being. A young ragpicker, who she had sketched, brought his friends to the spot to show the portrait, said Kerkar. The Times of India quoted Krishna, a woman who collected garbage door-to-door and proud to see her picture on the wall, as saying, “This is a great encouragement for all sanitation workers to be recognised for their work.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is a good time to recall the silent service being provided by the sanitation workers to keep our surroundings clean.
Next time you are in Musssorie, be sure to check out this very relevant art series.