Artist treks across Europe to highlight struggles of displaced labourers

Pankaj Tiwari
during the walk
AWARENESS: Pankaj Tiwari during the walk


AN INDIAN artist who trekked more than 300km across Europe to draw attention to the struggles of migrant labourers during the coronavirus crisis has revealed the inspiration behind the initiative.

Pankaj Tiwari, 30, is a theatre maker from Balrampur, northern India. His work, The Art of Walking, documents a trek from Amsterdam to refugee camps in Calais, France, taken by Tiwari and his collaborator Abhishek Thapar this summer.

Commissioned by performingbordersLIVE20, the 348km walk was designed to raise awareness of the struggle of migrant labourers displaced after the Covid-19 lockdown in India. Many workers have
been forced to walk long distances from big cities to
their native villages.

The on-going crisis caused difficulties when putting the project together – but that was the whole point, Tiwari told Eastern Eye. Thousands of migrant workers are currently facing the prospect of
walking for 200-2,300km to return home, he explained, so the timing of project was incredibly important as they conveyed the struggle.

Pankaj Tiwari walked 348km to raise awareness of the struggle of migrant labourers displaced after the Covid-19 lockdown in India

“When we were imagining the work, the rules were changing on a weekly basis and we were not sure whether we would be allowed to cross the borders or not,” he recalled. “Then we wondered, ‘where will we sleep?’ as people don’t want to meet each other at the moment. Especially, if you are non-white, it becomes more problematic.”

As well as raising awareness, Tiwari hoped to create a dialogue on the issue of migration in Europe too. The performance was designed to connect the Indian and European migrant struggle. Tiwari’s hometown is one of the main Indian states where migrant workers come from.

Living in Amsterdam since 2019, Tiwari wished to explore his own position in Europe as a migrant artist. “Coming from the land of migrant workers, what does it mean to be a migrant artist here in Europe?” he questioned. “What is my position and responsibility? Can I represent them or even feel them? But the question was also, what can I do here which is beyond just awareness?”

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, Tiwari admitted 2020 has been a “mixed” year for him. He said the pandemic has not limited his creativity in anyway, his work has received some visibility, and he has some new initiatives in Amsterdam.

However, the creative admitted to struggling on a personal level. He is still “not feeling at home” in Europe and misses India. “It is really difficult to find the idea of community and collective in this individualistic society, and while as an artist Europe accepts me, it’s still difficult to find a place here,” he said.

Pankaj (left) with friends during the trek

Tiwari is known for his work in performance art and is currently a participant at DAS Theatre in Amsterdam. Asked how theatres have adapted to the on-going crisis, Tiwari said he believes people are “reacting, not responding”.

For instance, he noted performances are being streamed online, creative classes and workshops are held virtually and artists are becoming “online performers to survive”. Tiwari believes the pressure to “exist” in the industry means that no one is taking time to respond to the situation.

“I believe that things have to be scaled down – a small audience, individual initiatives and interventions are necessary,” he explained. “We need to give some time to understand the situation and need to rehearse some interventions for practising the future. We have the potential to be creatively engaged and create the future the way we want – at least in the art and through the art.”