Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

Kutch, a place between India and Pakistan, is known for its »otherworldly« salt desert (the White Rann), unique rocks, fossils, the ancient Indus Valley archeological site, and Banni Grassland Reserve with its rich and diverse ecology. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Charmy Sadhana Jayesh, and Goutam Ghosh explore this site in terms of three strands in a project they call the »Desert Lab.« In the »Desert Lab« myth and mystical ideas and the site’s special geological features are evaluated through speculative ideas of the Desert Planet.  

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay, Charmy Sadhana Jayesh, and Goutam Ghosh — Mrz 17, 2021

Mythological stories of Purana, Dastan, describing the early land formation and the creation of the earth are reflected in the geological myths in Kutch. Here, the churning nature of the ocean, the salt desert, frequent earthquakes, and allegories of world turtles form foundational beliefs. Yet belief and myth have been shaken many times over by natural and political turmoil. Therefore, the stories have been carried and echoed in fragments of rocks, archeological ruins, and Jurassic and ammonite fossils. Geographically, the place is known for its searing sun, hot temperatures, low rainfall, and desertification, all of which affect possibilities of new life. In such climatic conditions people lead minimal lives in the isolation of the desert – pastoral, nomadic, with their uninterrupted gaze on the horizon. The desert land has been the walking grounds for reptiles, mariners, mystics, Sufis, traders, pilgrims, and conquerors. Criss-crossing paths, restless days and nights, ups and downs, and frequent seismic activities prevent stable life here. When a mystic poet utters his/her* words:»[…] Temporary dwellers on the planet,« more than magical or supernatural realms are at play; it is a practice of living in a peaceful, well-disciplined way with minimum resources; a state we may call »Mystic Living.«

Prequel: Magic or Metaphor

A note from Goutam: Thank you for letting me know about your idea to include two more people from Kutch for a discussion. It is a great idea to listen to the voices of those living there and experiencing the rhythm and the knowledge of the landscape. It is precisely in telling everyday stories and not transfiguring the landscape into a fairy tale, a magical place, that I see the great potential to grasp the so-called »magical« or »spiritual« and »non-rational« as something not separate from us, but as a common understanding of ourselves as part of a whole.

A note from the editor: When I invited Goutam, Bodhisattva, and Charmy to write about their »Desert Lab« project, starting the dialogue, the working title for the second Solitude Journal was still On Magic, and Spiritual and Non-Rational Realms.

A note from 🪐: Regarding what we explored in Kutch and what we like to call »Mystic Living,« the pairing of magic with the non-rational – as used in the working title for this issue – is misleading. There are many different aspects to this, but one example is the way how magic and miracle operate on different levels of rationality. Magic is demonstrable, while miracles are not. Miracles by definition derive from a realm that can never be captured by the rational. Miracles defy reason. Magic, however, is about things that have a basis. It is interpersonal, and it is about communication. Here, one can invoke Clarke’s Third Law and its restatement: »Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,«  and therefore any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. When we talk about magic, we mean it in this sense, not distinguished from the rational, just belonging to a different scale of things on the same continuum of reason. What we don’t know or understand in the region may seem »magical« to us, but could just be commonplace to everyone who actually lives there. It is important to remember that these people are not our »spiritual« guides. It’s not their job to lead the city-dweller (or White man/woman,* etc.) to wisdom, nor are we here to lead them to greater science or civilization. They don’t have any special wisdom, either, in a non-rational sense. One should eschew anthropological nonsense and not fetishize communities.

What we have instead are possibilities of learning from each other, which do not require cognitive jumps of miracles or new dichotomies between the natural and supernatural. People, animals, and other beings that inhabit the planet have incredible knowledge and craft, some explicit, some tacit, some understandable, some not yet so, that are testimonies to hundreds of thousands of years of different kinds of adaptation. We have many environmental challenges and stressors. Desertification is real. Much of the world is running out of fresh water. Land is becoming too saline and dry to support life. We are in the midst of a mass extinction. All of us need to learn from those who live in the desert. We need to understand what we can do better, and we need to change our ways really fast. Let us just be humble that we don’t understand everything, and be open to learning from beings that know more than we do in conditions that most of us are thoroughly unprepared for. Most of humanity won’t be able to find direction in a desert or a city if they are dropped in it without a map or a GPS. Most humans wouldn’t know how to manage a forest safely so we don’t have forest fire outbreaks. Indigenous populations are less than 10 percent of the global population, and occupy about 25 percent of the land, but manage 80 percent of planetary biodiversity. The Amazon forests are a result of indigenous agricultural practices over thousands of years. You can call it magical, spiritual, wisdom of the ancestors if you like, but I would call this knowledge. Knowledge has many different forms. To me learning is about humility. If there are those that know better, maybe I should just listen and learn – not because it’s magical, but because it is vital. This applies to many knowledges: Most of us wouldn’t know the first thing about fixing a broken electronic device or a machine, so we could do with training given how much waste we produce.

Magic #1

🌏: When a BJP politician offered to sponsor a new well, the villagers went to the bhopa to ask for the goddess’s advice. He went into a trance and began to shake and tremble to the chanting and percussion beat of the onlookers. This is the usual ritual with the villagers’ shaman. He indicated an area in the village about two kilometers away where water could be found. A group of villagers went there and the bhopa once again went into a trance and struck his spear into the earth. When the villagers dug there, they managed to strike water at 22 feet even though water in the surrounding wells was at a level of 150 feet.

The villagers are convinced that it was through the goddess’s blessing that water was struck. It was not always so clear-cut. Sometimes even after the villagers got a green signal to dig a well from the bhopa, they did not strike waters. Failure is usually attributed to bad luck or fate. In most cases, villagers rely on both technical and religious indicators to choose a site to dig a well. Usually technical aspects of knowledge for example, the location of trees and old wells, predominate. Hence, at one level, consulting the bhopa is more a ritualistic and symbolic practice.
– Lyla Mehta, The Politics and Poetics of Water

🪐: One way to convert magic into science is the colonial way, that is, what we do not understand the frameworks and systems we already have, and discard whatever doesn’t fit. The other is the anticolonial approach, that recognizes these systems as new ways of reorganizing knowledge, transforming the limits of what we understand to be the sciences. So these are not new knowledges but transformation of the limits of what we consider to be knowledge. The former is about technoscientific specialization, the latter is interdisciplinarity in practice. In the former, knowledge absorption is the goal. In the second, it is creating the grounds for knowledge. It breaks open the future, and says these aren’t lost traditions or anything. They do not belong to the database of the has-been, but are in the present and are about the future.

When we render »knowledge« or »magic« into frameworks or systems we do understand, then the people holding that knowledge become dispensable. What we gain is marketability at the cost of the human. Thus if you can render the »magic« held by the »native« into science, you no longer need to keep the native alive. To discover nature’s secrets you can destroy nature. This has been the genocide and ecocide of colonialism. For coevalness, we need to recognize beings – humans and non-human beings – as living, embodied repositories of knowledge, which cannot necessarily be rendered or transferred from magic to science. Hence »tantra« or its many iterations, recognizing the continually transforming and breaking boundaries of knowledge and science. Tantra is not anti-science; it is open science.

Magic #2

🌏:  There was an old tree that was burning in the summer heat by a lake. A little bird used to dwell in its lap, and was sad about it. There was a moment when the bird was found flying back and forth between the lake and the tree. Each time, the bird dipped herself into the lake and held water in its tiny wings to wet the burning tree. The bird was continuously doing this until the rain came with a heavy thunderstorm. This story can be seen as a traditional moralistic fable (Hitapadesh). But in the summer afternoon in a clear blue sky, you have the magical appearance of sudden rain with thunderstorms. Kabir says » […] khuda bhi ro pada uss choti-si chiriya ka hosle dekh ke’: even God began to cry seeing the determined little bird.


Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

🌕 The legend claims that Dhoramnath stood on his head for twelve years on top of Dinodhar Hill, an inactive volcano behind the monastery, in self-imposed penance for a curse he inadvertently invoked. Upon being urged by the gods to cease his penance, he agreed on condition that whatever his eyes first saw would turn barren. And thus the Great Rann of Kutch was created. A temple dedicated to him stands on the hill.

🌏:   There is a scholar who lives in an interior district. There is no phone number. The ocean is not far from where the scholar used to live. I kept the Gulf of the Arabian Sea to my left and to my right Naliya, the last big town before reaching the scholar. We only got three more hints – Osirawandh, Jakau, and the last landmark was the person himself. Roads look like roots of trees in the map and the lines get thinner and disappear in remote, underdeveloped places.

We were four people, squeezed inside the car for a long time. We got down and asked for directions at a roadside stall. The time we left from the stall and reached the destination felt like it had low gravity, with light falling like salt crystals, less like popcorns in a glass box. There was little sense of direction beside the straight line of the road ahead of us. The empty barren land plays tricks with moving cars. The texture of the land in front of the eyes was moving in a circle like a record player. One gets confused about what is moving before and after – car, land, or the sky? You look at the far horizon where the land mass meets the sky. Here, the ground and the sky become one swaying screen. In the rough desert land, when the sun-rays are unbearable, a curtain of water forms in the corner of the desert eye. We also know this phenomena as mirage or illusion. There is a saying by the great Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam that goes: »Those smart people who do not commit the mistake of understanding the mirage as water: there is a lack of thirst in them.«


Healing Pool

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

Narrations of healings do not proceed linearly and have many twists, turns, and networks. In the end they resolve themselves without any crashing moment of revelation. What makes a good recovery makes poor stories. In a long process of healing there are many ups and downs. There are times when you feel comforts (aram) and times you feel worse and times you feel nothing. One must respect the process of healing. Healing is a relationship with the physical and psychological substances that make one heal.


Drop a bucket in the well; while the familiar reflection is momentarily shattered, what is brought from beneath the surface will be exactly what you need, though it may bear no discernible relationship to the surface image that drew you in. Try to show others what you see in the well; they won’t see exactly what you see, even if you look over the edge with them. The shapes on the shifting surface of water is the experience of embodiment in layers of the virtual
– Carla Bellamy, The Powerful Ephemeral 


Darvesh (Angle) used to carry a mirror upon which stories used to appear. Every story is a mirror that we carry in our hands. There are points when mirrors (properties) begin to melt and vaporize our sight. A curtain of mercury (Paara) plays behind the mirror.


Uninterrupted Whiteness

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

🌕: Do you think we are making an attempt to differentiate between Black and White when we talk about magic and the uninterrupted whiteness of Kutch?

🌏: We had now traveled beyond the ocean, and the water had begun to dry up and a huge salt marshland had appeared. The last melted snow dried and froze into the first salt. The horizon was white; the thin brown line that separates ground from the sky is the last hope of our senses. After walking a few kilometers in the salted barren land, the midday sky began to reflect on the ground, and ground reflected it back to the sky again. One falls unconscious, only to be rescued in the Rann by villagers who live nearby or border security forces who patrol the border area. When the BSF asked the unconscious person …Where is he coming from, and where is he going? He says he is coming from point A, going to point B.

Back in the village there are rumors about a terrorist in the Raan.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

The ocean turned into the white field of Rann or ocean of milk or ocean of curd. A musician from Nirona in Kutch, Musa bhai once said that »Sufi is like a white page, like a white field of Raan.« Photo: Endre Tveitan, Oslo, 2017. Courtesy of the photographer

🌕: Now, let us think, what are the forces of nature? Is Rann a force of nature? Do we see the desert on its own terms? In its complete Svatantrata (freedom)? I am remembering the time in the desert, walking in starlight and losing the grip of time, when the stars and the salty land merged. That night I couldn’t differentiate between the two. Every next step was a surprise. I didn’t know what was ahead of me. The idea of time slowly fading and yet precisely and mathematically musical, a sense of separation and a point of convergence. But, as a survival experience, it is scary to think and experience.

Saleem Sinai, the protagonist in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, finds himself »anchored off the Rann of Kutch on a heat-soaked afternoon,« he says:

I stared through the heat-haze at the Rann. The Rann of Kutch … I’d always thought it a magical name, and half-feared, half-longed to visit the place, that chameleon area which was land for half the year and sea for the other half, and on which, it was said, the receding ocean would abandon all manner of fabulous debris, such as treasure chests, white ghostly jellyfish, and even the occasional gasping, freak-legendary figure of a merman.


The Ocean and the Desert

🪐: In India and the subcontinent, there is no dearth of examples of parts of the country suffering droughts, desertification, and flooding at the same time, leading to widespread destruction of property and loss of life – not just human life, but all manner of flora and fauna. The desert planet and the drowned world. The desert planet and the drowned world, from one angle, seem to be absolute opposites.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

🌕: There were the asuras – quite visible and evidently lost in the dry ocean.

🌕:  The Samudra Manthan (Great Ocean Churning) is the foundational myth, found across world cultures and mythologies.

The cousins, devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) are at war. Following the great devastation, in which the devas lose, they agree to work together to bring balance by churning the ocean of milk, which would yield amrit, the nectar of immortality. Mount Mandara was to be used as a rod to churn the amrit out of the ocean, and Vasuki, the serpent king or the nagaraja (abides on Shiva’s neck) is the churning rope was held by the cousins, as a rope, to rotate the humongous churning rod. But Mount Mandara was going to submerge in the ocean. The devas went to Vishnu, as the king of tortoises Kurma Raja and said to him, »O Tortoise king, thou wilt have to hold the mountain on thy back.« Vishnu in the form of Kurma (tortoise), came to the rescue of Devas and supported the mountain on its shell.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - Kutch Desert Lab. A Speculative Script

A tortoise, again a slow winner to tackle in the drought and drowning. Field visit 2020


🌏:  Ismail Bhai lives in Khadri-island in Kutch. He works for the regional forest department. We often hang around with him whenever we are in the area and see him set off with binoculars and wander around the white desert. He told us that this place came out from the ocean, like a turtle (kachuya). It was evening sun, the temperature in the desert (-lab) flask was cooling down with the breeze from the Raan – a drop of blue poison (Amrita) in the milk of the ocean became a precious pearl.


Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is associate professor in Global Culture Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway. He heads the international research group CoFUTURES. Chattopadhyay is the leader (PI) of two large research projects funded by the European and Norwegian Research Councils, which explore contemporary global futurisms movements from a transmedial perspective, including literature, film, visual arts, and games. Chattopadhyay runs the Holodeck, a state-of-the-art games research lab at UiO. He is also an Imaginary College Fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. His research website is: https://cofutures.org

Charmy Sadhana Jayesh lives and works in Bombay, India. She studied Mass Media and Communication at the University of Mumbai, and has been studying in the department of Philosophy and Sanskrit. She is training in the Indian classical dance form of Odissi. Charmy is a part of the Desert Lab Collective in Kutch. She is currently creating and finding her joy.

Goutam Ghosh lives in India. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Oslo, and at the Maharaja Sayaji Rao University, Baroda, in India. He had solo shows at Tanya Leighton Gallery in Berlin, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Standard (Oslo), and Project 88 in Mumbai, and participated in international group exhibitions: David Zwirner Gallery, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2016) among others. Goutam is part of the Desert Lab Collective in Kutch and was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude

This ongoing desert lab project in Kutch is supported by India Foundation for the Arts under the Arts Research programme with support from Titan Company Limited.