The Empirical Body: Sensing a Landscape in South India


When Velu asked me where I was from, I told him I grew up in the south of Chennai. He smiled, looking away, sinking into one of his momentary reveries.


“It is the same city… the same coast… yet it is so different… you know.”


While I think I did know, Velu often reminded me that I would never fully understand or fully know his place. When I sat with him, watching him mend his fishing nets, stitching the frayed ends that were the result of prawns, fish and crabs trying to escape his nets, he pointed to the coal fired power plants that towered over us across the river and told me that there was nothing left for him here.


“This place”, he insisted, “was over”.


This place in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, India, is familiar yet elusive. While I lived in the same city as Velu, forty-five kilometers south of the neighbourhood he called home, I breathed in a different coastal air. I heard the sounds of the sea and sniffed the salt in the air.


Velu told me he did too. But he also smelt the coal dust in the air, felt it in the water and saw it on his nets. He pointed to lesions on his body and insisted I examine the discolouration of his fishing gear. He told me he was “used to it now.”


The toxicity Velu has become “used to” exhibits itself in myriad forms. It is experienced and comprehended through the body, a body that is intimately linked to place.  I examine this equation, of place and the body, and explore through my photographs how toxicity blurs this distinction: making the body the place where toxicity is made visible and place as the body’s experiences of toxicity. 

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The Body in the Water

Velu told me that he had seen people with different instruments probe the water to measure its levels of toxicity. “But they never enter the water. Why don’t they just ask us fishermen? After all, only by entering the water do we make an income.”

The industrialization of Velu’s landscape has heavily affected the river that supports his income. The presence of copper, zinc and mercury has been confirmed by different scientific tests that were designed to measure the levels of bioaccumulation that aquatic life in the river had endured. But Velu knows that the water is polluted. His body, he insisted, was enough to make sense of it.


In the image above, Velu and Surya are drawing the nets they had set up in the river, back onto the boat. Both the action of setting up the nets and the work needed to draw them back on the boat demands the body to be fully or partially immersed in the water. His feet traverse the riverbed, making calculations of its depth and consistency. His body measures the strength of the current as he sets up the nets to withstand its force. His hands work through the nets in the water, untangling any unnecessary accretion that might hamper the proper functioning of his nets. All routine calculations of their river and all measured by their body.


At first glance this image might just appear as two men in the process of fishing. But I wish to reorient our reading of the image. This image is also a representation of the body’s intimacy with toxicity. Not solely as victims of industrial pollution, but also as “embodied empiricists” in their own landscape.  Knowing that the water is polluted changes our perspective of the two men. But it is in knowing that both Velu and Surya are well aware of the water’s pollution, through its influence on their body and in their place, can we visualize what we otherwise might believe only lies beneath the surface.


Fire in the Sky

After drawing the nets on to the boat, Velu and Surya sort out their catch. Small prawns form one cluster, the few tiger prawns another, while the rest of the catch is released back in the water. The process of segregation is a long and tedious one. Once complete, Velu and Surya transfer each pile in to different baskets, storing them in an icebox at the very end. They both sigh in relief and rest their backs to the sides of the boat, finally looking out into the distance as opposed to the floor of their boat.


“It used to be scary before the companies came… forests all around… you could even hear jackals at night. I used to get really scared but now… you can see for yourself… this is what happens when the companies come”.


Velu tells me this with his eyes fixed on the power plant in the distance. We see the plant puff away flushes of steam from its stacks, illuminating a once “scary” place with its hyper visible presence. But can we envision its absence? It is precisely this, thinking of the same place without a power plant, without chimneys puffing steam, without incandescent lights setting dark skies on fire, without mercury in the water and in the fish, without the mechanized sounds of energy infrastructures mingling through the day and night, without the smells of an industrial intruder, without “toxicity”, that Velu remembers vividly. This sensorial transformation of place, from jackals to smoke stacks, is where toxicity becomes visible. While this experience is intimate and is a memory that is located in certain bodies, thinking through the absence of ‘toxicity’ in the image above, might help the viewer rethink what is actually there.


The Nets

After the nets are drawn on to the boat, Velu and Surya keenly inspect them, ensuring that all of the catch falls to the floor, and that there isn't much damage to them. Most often there isn't anything beyond a few frayed ends that would easily be mended the next day. But the nets tell another story that remind the fishers of their toxic landscape. Caked in the residues of the coal-fired thermal power plants that surround them, the once blue nets have incresingly accomodated the greys and blacks of coal dust and slurry. "They look dull now" was Velu's way of telling me that there is something else, in the air, in the water, in his body and his nets, that could be measured by the senses. The material life of things that ineract with the lives of fishers, are equally places were toxicity becomes visible. 

The Catch

Towards the end, Velu and Surya pile the catch together and store it in an ice box. Depending on the size of their catch, fishers choose to sell the shrimp and prawns at the smaller local market or the central fish market that attracts consumers that buy in larger quantities. However, both Velu and Surya insisted that the size of their catch had significantly reduced since the construction of the power plants. This coupled with an increasingly silted river that suffered from numeorus infrastructures that impeded its tidal rhythym only aggrevated their concerns for their landscape. But when a study suggested that the industrial discharge that was let in to the river had accumulated in to the life of their catch, the headman of the fishing village insisted that the reports were false. "We eat what comes out of the river and nothing happens to us", he said proudly, and assured that the same would be true for me. While toxicity makes itself visible to the fishers in this landscape, it is selectively rendered invisible as well. The boundaries of visible and invisble toxicity, though porous, suggests a complex politics of measure that traverse the daily lives of human and non-human actors in a toxic place. I intend for this image to be read in that light. Can we look at it and ask ourselves where the entangled boundaries of toxicity end? 


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Created date

February 18, 2020

Group Audience

Cite as

Rishabh Raghavan. 18 February 2020, "The Empirical Body: Sensing a Landscape in South India", Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 16 March 2020, accessed 24 July 2024.