Shunyo Raja


Kings of a Bereft Land

When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers equally culpable- for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats. 

- The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh.

The Project

The Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta, comprising Bangladesh and West Bengal (India) is the world's largest delta. It empties into the Bay of Bengal and is home to the Sunderbans, the world's largest contiguous halophytic mangrove forest.

Due to human induced climate change, the Delta is faced with severe challenges as the delicate balance between land, air and sea is threatened. 

Rising sea levels and swelling of rivers due to increased discharge from global warming have led to the disappearance and submerging of many Sunderban islands while several more risk disappearance. The increase in salinity levels from inundations and storm surges threatens the health of the mangroves and soil and crop quality. Progressive salinization of water impacts the availability of freshwater fish species, depriving families of their main protein source while also adversely affecting livelihoods. The increased intensity of tropical cyclones and greater wind speeds further exacerbate the risk to these people.

In the Delta where millions live, recent cyclones like Aila, Hudhud and Sidr have destroyed property and life, putting people under enormous economic debt. Post-Aila, a mass exodus of able-bodied men to more prosperous regions and to the Gulf states was observed. Primarily fishermen or farmers, oftentimes they lack adequate skills and end up as laborers in the construction sector. Migrating with families to nearby cities, many have ended up being the first environmental refugees in both countries.

Three-fourths of the Delta risk destruction from anthropogenic stress factors. Mangrove cover depletion will result in loss of the protective biological shield against cyclones and tsunamis, putting coastal communities at high risk. The major cities of Kolkata and Dhaka will be exposed to environmental catastrophes if this buffer zone disappeared. 

The Sunderbans play a crucial ecological role in mitigating adverse climate change effects by functioning as a major carbon sink, removing carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it in a reservoir, a process known as carbon sequestration. Hence, destruction of the Sunderbans will compound the problem of carbon management manifold times. 

At the forefront of the global war against climate change, the major brunt is borne by the inhabitants of the Delta, who are known for their sustainable ways of living thereby leaving one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world.

Using a melange of video, environmental portraits and expansive landscape images depicting the inhabitants in this brutal ever-changing milieu, this project comprehensively documents contemporary life in the Delta and investigates the exacerbating crisis in both countries simultaneously, offering an in-depth view of the myriad ground realities . Ambitious in scope, this project has already been underway for the past three years and focuses on a critical examination of six islands in India and six in Bangladesh, spread across the Delta. 

The title takes from what a man, now an environmental refugee himself, once told me, "bereft of our land and livelihood, we are all but shunyo rajas (kings of a bereft land) in this erstwhile land of plenty."

The Sunderban crisis concerns us all and its mitigation is our collective responsibility.

The Structure

The extensive version of SHUNYO RAJA as a project currently lives on Instagram, where it has been given the form of an evolving digital photo-book divided into five broad chapters, through an elaborate use of hashtags with the aim of providing a new conceptually driven documentary storytelling experience:

#shunyorajavideo- the Instagram feed primarily comprises video very much in the fashion of catastrophe video-feeds which proliferate on social media these days. The videos are Gonzo, in the sense that I am very much present in the voice-overs, where I often discuss pertinent issues around rising sea levels, migration etc. (in bengali) with the locals, thereby experimenting with narrative and storytelling.

#shunyorajaimage- this chapter includes ever-changing landscapes and portraits of climate change refugees across the Delta in India and Bangladesh that I have been working on for the past three years.

#shunyorajatext- a chapter on passages/texts/quotes that inspire this work.

#shunyorajamaps- a chapter around the intersections of cartography, technology, digital memory and climate change, (

#shunyorajacrossover- a chapter comprising pertinent images from other personal projects.

SHUNYO RAJA is a long-term project where I explore memory, impermanence and the trajectories of loss through image and video. Buildings I have been visiting for years collapse in front of my eyes while people I have met before disappear without leaving any trace in the ever-shifting topographies of the land. If the Sunderbans go, my city Kolkata goes. This project maps time and tells the stories of these people, my people.