Asian Insider

Death of Indian artist-activist from Covid-19 shakes up local community in Karnataka

Mr Nanjundasamy M. working on a community mural for a sustainable farming collective called Amrita Bhoomi – the Evergreen Earth.
Mr Nanjundasamy M. working on a community mural for a sustainable farming collective called Amrita Bhoomi – the Evergreen Earth.PHOTO: HARISH KUMAR

CHAMARAJANAGAR - An elderly woman threw herself on the ground outside the Chamarajanagar district government hospital in India's Karnataka state on May 20, crying till the ground beneath her was wet with her tears.

A doctor had just announced that her son had died of Covid-19. Mr Nanjundasamy M., 36, had been admitted to the hospital only the previous day. He was gone before his test results were out.

"I want to see his face one last time," the mother wailed. Nurses held her back, trying to explain that it was not safe for her to do so.

Mr Nanjundasamy's closest buddy, Mr Harish Kumar, 33, sat on his haunches nearby.

"He was a brilliant artist, my life," Mr Harish mumbled through his double mask and sobs. He helped his friend's mother leave, promising to organise the last rites.

As the news spread through nearby villages, people were stunned at losing a community artist and activist they had grown to love and trust. The only son of daily-wage labourers, Mr Nanjundasamy was a graduate of the Ravivarma Fine Arts College in Mysore.

He took to making murals with his college mate, Mr Harish.

"At first, the art was about beauty and perfection, but coming from a poor background, Nanju felt we must use the power of art to create awareness," said Mr Harish.

For 15 years, he produced murals, sculptures and hand-painted posters about climate change, tiger conservation, and the rights of farmers and those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.

Mr Nanjundasamy made sure the style and material were always local. One of his most enduring works is the expansive mud-based tribal Warli art that adorns the office and kitchen of a sustainable farming collective called Amrita Bhoomi - the Evergreen Earth.

In a month seven years ago, Mr Nanjundasamy and Mr Harish had turned the centre's dull grey walls into a brick-red canvas of farm life at its best: white stick figures dancing in circles, oxen tilling the land, and women bending over a burst of finger millet.

"We vaguely told him to make something agriculture themed, but he made it a masterpiece," said Ms Kavitha Srinivasan, a volunteer at Amrita Bhoomi.

His community activism took the troubling realities of chronic droughts, farmer suicides and illiteracy head-on.

As part of a student group of Dalits, among the most marginalised groups in India, Mr Nanjundasamy helped young men and women like himself stand up for their rights and encouraged poor families to send their girls to college.

Showing a photo of Mr Nanjundasamy on his phone, Mr Abhilash Malangi, a young man in Hondarabalu village, said: "Who ever bothers creating beautiful things for poor people? Our sweet Nanju did."

During the pandemic, the activist had raised awareness about mask wearing in dozens of villages.

"He would patiently explain to people who had never learnt science what a virus is - that it is in the air, in your nostrils, not visible to the eyes, and causes disease," said Mr Harish.

After Mr Nanjundasamy got a cough two weeks ago, he tested negative for Covid-19. When he grew weak, and a friend found his oxygen saturation level too low,

they rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late.

"I feel like one of my wings has been cut off," said Mr Harish, who is now taking care of his friend's father, the only primary contact to have tested positive for the virus.

Mr Nanjundasamy's is one of more than 319,000 Covid-19 deaths in India. But it has struck panic in a community that is experiencing the devastation of the pandemic only in the second wave.

Many refuse to see a doctor or health worker, fearful of finding out that they have Covid-19.

And one person who might have convinced them to get vaccinated or tested is now gone.