Living in the Sundarbans delta is like walking the edge of a knife. The Sundarbans is a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, spread across India and Bangladesh, famous for its unique mangrove forests. This hybrid landscape, where the waters of three mighty rivers, the Ganges, Padma and the Brahmaputra, meet to form the world’s largest bird-foot delta, is ecologically fragile and exposed to hydro hazards such as tropical cyclones, floods, and typhoons.
The purpose of my visual ethnography is to focus on the delta as a social space that has been the subject of neglect in academic discourse because of a methodological bias that has either focused on the land or sea-ocean world. Though deltas remain undistinguished and discrete geographical features within area studies, they have historically created connections between land and water through tributaries and backwaters that join maritime and terrestrial worlds, facilitating circulation and mobility.
My visual ethnographic and arts-based project adds a fascinating chapter toward place-based understanding of coastal societies in the Bay of Bengal. It focuses on the littoral seaboard that connects the rest of Asia across the Indian Ocean trade route. Europeans officials who surveyed the region during the later eighteenth century termed the delta archipelago “Sundarban,” meaning “beautiful forest,” in their itineraries and reports. The Sundarbans is a part-land, part-water milieu that supports the world’s largest mangrove megafauna. The liminality of the landscape is marked by vanishing islands that emerge and disappear with geomorphic processes of land formation. In this water-based economy, the riverine communities are socially connected through dispersed village settlements and weekly markets (locally known as haat bazaar). The rivers are not just channels of water; they carry a thriving trade, transporting people, goods, and ideas from one part of the delta to another.
In recent decades, the lives of communities in the coastal belt have been compromised by state-driven development projects such as the Rampal thermal power plant proposed jointly by India and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the powerful ship breaking industry in Chittagong is creating a massive livelihood crisis in Bangladesh’s Sitakund coastal seaboard, among the traditional fishing community, as toxic litter pollutes the coastal water, and depleting fish catches. In West Bengal, Indian people living in the Sundarbans have opened up their community spaces for the influx of tourists. This has allowed unregulated entry of engine boats and transport of fly ash from Calcutta port to Dhaka by big trawlers, causing oil spills and polluting the pristine backwaters. The tourist flow has created a demand for guesthouses and hotels in the delta that have added to the vulnerability of the fragile delta ecology. In addition, shrimp aquaculture, once a thriving business on the coast, has significantly damaged the mangrove forest. Both in India and Bangladesh, human intervention and changing state policies in favor of neoliberalization and globalization have adversely affected the coastal environment.
These images communicate the littoral community’s everyday struggles with their environment and their aspirations for improvement, local beliefs, customs, festivals, and local tradition. Besides this, the photographs are spectacles of the connected history of the region—Islamic religiosity that has developed with the expansion of rice cultivation invigorated by Sufi prophets who came to spread the message of Islam from the twelfth century onward. These mystics have been portrayed through scroll paintings by local craft artists known as potuas, which are kept in their community and family-held museum depositories. While the national and international audiences have been introduced to literature illustrating the delta’s flora and fauna, the visuals showcasing human societies’ relation with nature and culture are often excluded from the narrative. Through exhibit of artwork and mundane activities of communities living in the delta the authors have tried to showcase the symbiotic relationships that exist and manifest through their livelihood in the delta.