Arko Datto’s study of the Indian pik-nik phenomenon

Indian photographer Arko Datto (b.1986) completed two masters degrees in theoretical physics and mathematics before deciding to take a “leap of faith into photography”. After studying photography at the Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus, his long-term projects have since been published in leading international publications, such as TIME and National Geographic. He joined the prestigious NOOR agency last October.

For PIK-NIK, Datto spent the last five winter seasons photographing picnic spots across eastern India, primarily in West Bengal but also in Jharkhand and Orissa. Here, families and colleagues converge for a day of food, drink and revelry before departing at sunset, leaving piles of rubbish in their wake.

“Vats of freshly slaughtered chicken, sacks of vegetables and an arsenal of pots, pans and gas cylinders are lugged along, taking cooking en plein air to a whole new level,” says Datto.

“Yet, the most curious detail by far are the extravagant loudspeakers that come with nearly every picnic group,” he adds – speakers which are accompanied by electricity generators transported in hand-drawn carts and minivans. “From the speakers, songs from recent Bengali and Hindi blockbusters blare high above permissible decibels, while drunk on whiskey and rum, men of all ages brawl, dance their hearts out or pass out, as wives, girlfriends and children watch.”

The visual representations of giant loudspeakers and open-air cooking “work on a synaesthetic level,” explains Datto. “Apart from challenging the predominantly visual grammar of photography, this multi-sensory quality also creates an immersive effect, allowing us to enter the experience as such.”

Speaker at a Pik-Nik. Most of the loudspeakers blare popular music from recent Bengali and Hindi films. Some groups transport an array of loudspeakers on trucks specially to make the most of their day-out. Kolaghat, West Bengal. January, 2014 © Arko Datto

When evening falls and the picnic goers make their way home, broken bottles and styrofoam plates litter the ground. As the picnics are held by the innumerable rivers in the region — including the Ganges, Rupnarayan and Ichamati, plus the many others that feed into the Sundarbans – rubbish invariably ends up in the water. “The intersection of land and water offers a perfect backdrop for the garbage that remains and the garbage that floats away on the bank and shoal of time,” he says, drawing attention to the stark environmental message in his series, especially of human negligence.

This aspect of the series is an ongoing theme in Datto’s work – though he often likes to photograph people, he’s interested in moments that reveal a glimpse into what it means to exist in today’s world, “fusing macroscopic and microscopic narratives of race, class, gender, religion and politics”.

“This work attempts to capture the passage of time, not necessarily in a chronological manner but in fragments from personal and subjective vantage points,” he continues. “The images of preparation, carousal and departure observe a festive and yet muted temporality as the series explores nuances of communal life in its discrete moments of peopled solitude.”

A band party makes music by the Kansabati river. Medinipur, West Bengal. January, 2017 © Arko Datto

From the vacant stare of a solitary cook to the semi-drunken bonding of men, Datto points out the subtle class dynamics embodied in the picnic experience. “There is also a stark note of gender segregation as we keep encountering all-male or all-female gatherings,” he adds. “In essence, there is a lot going on all around. PIK-NIK tries to make sense of this social occurrence and shed light on this wintry zeitgeist.”

And despite the apparent tranquility in the images, Datto says it wasn’t always easy to shoot this project. “There is a latent tension intrinsic to most of these situations,” he says. “The energy in these spaces is often quite unstable. Thus, perfectly calm settings can suddenly erupt in violence without warning, so I tend to always be on my toes.” Arko Datto’s PIK-NIK was exhibited in JaipurPhoto earlier this year, which was guest-curated by Aaron Schuman.

bjp-online has previously featured Arko Datto’s project Snakefire

Romancing amidst garbage and the incoming sea. West Bengal-Orissa border, 2017 © Arko Datto
The Jumping Frog happens to be one of the most popular entertainment rides at Millenium Park, a popular picnic spot along the Ganga. Kolkata. December, 2014 © Arko Datto
The union of hawkers from Amta, a suburban town in Bengal on their annual outing by the Rupnarayan River. Near Kolkaghat, West Bengal. January, 2014 © Arko Datto
An inebriated man pulled in different directions by his friends. Gongoni, West Bengal. December, 2017 © Arko Datto
A picnic takes place in the environmentally degraded zone around the Ganges river near Kulpi, which is lined with brick kilns. Rampant overexploitation of the river banks has hastened erosion in this region. South 24 Parganas, January, 2017 © Arko Datto
Loudspeakers being carried away at end of day. Taki, West Bengal. January, 2014 © Arko Datto
Siblings Shahrukh and Tuhina Khatum along the banks of the Ganga. Some of the picnic spots are very fragile environmentally. The riverbanks here have seen severe erosion in recent years with trees and soil giving in to the raging waters. South 24-Parganas, West Bengal. March, 2015 © Arko Datto
A game of Catch played by friends and family. Sunderbans, West Bengal. January, 2015 © Arko Datto
Picknickers on a boat-ride through the Sunderban tiger reserve. Koikhali, 2017 © Arko Datto
Prayers before lunch. Chandernagore, January, 2015 © Arko Datto
A transgender individual obliges a drunk picnicker under the disapproving glances of another man. A group of transgender persons went about the crowds usually to dance with them in exchange for cash. Falta, West Bengal. January, 2017 © Arko Datto
An extremely inebriated man gets carried out to safety by friends. Daboo, West Bengal. January, 2015 © Arko Datto
A drunk man lies passed out in a garbage heap while a couple romance under the setting sun. Diamond Harbour, West Bengal. December, 2014 © Arko Datto