The plight of the Yamuna is a good example of what we are capable of doing to our rivers. It runs through the nation’s capital, but that has hardly helped—the most polluted stretch is the one that runs through Delhi.
Artist Atul Bhalla—born, brought up in Delhi and now living here—began exploring the Yamuna and its relationship with the city and its inhabitants through his works over a decade ago. “Before ecological art became fashionable,” he points out. Ten years later, the river continues to be both—his “inspiration and medium”.
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A set of installations, and photographs arranged in diptychs and multiple shots, comprise his latest show, titled In Another Sweat, which explores the Yamuna and its umbilical link with Delhi.
Bhalla doesn’t make loud statements decrying man’s ill-treatment of the river—as he puts it, his is not a journalistic but an artistic approach. Instead of images of raw sewage and industrial effluents clogging the river, there are multiple shots of a bhishti giving water to the thirsty from his leather water bag near the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Yes, they are still around and they only take donations.
Outside the gallery is an installation of a giant jerrycan—the modern-day lota that is a lietmotif of sorts for Bhalla. Like a latter day bhishti, he will be housed inside it, offering potable Yamuna water to visitors. Contemporary bhishtis are also celebrated in 40 separate but identically composed photos of the ubiquitous aluminium carts selling chilled water. On the roads, they hardly merit a second glance, but hung on the gallery walls collectively, they make an impact with their red and orange lettering, and lemons stacked in glass tumblers.
The recurring images of the same subject, each slightly different from the other, are meant to make the viewer stay with the artwork—they could be the tranquil if slightly depressing grey and blue tone photos of people under bridges, or sunny images of water pumping stations along the Yamuna. “I am spending time to shoot the images and I want the viewer to spend time with the works,” says Bhalla.
The 22km stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi, from Palla village in the north to the Okhla barrage in the south, offers varied scenery. Bhalla’s bucolic diptychs of the riverbank with sugar cane fields and of scenic embankments seem light years away from the din and the crowds and come as a revelation because these images have been shot in Delhi. That these images are real offers a kind of redemptive hope and an optimism about the future—you can’t box the river in self-defeating visions of crisis and civic apocalypse.
Bhalla’s installations and photos aren’t judgemental. In a direct and occasionally blunt manner, they state a simple immutable fact—the Yamuna, Delhi and Dilliwalas are united in myriad and essential ways. What we choose to do with this knowledge is up to us.
In Another Sweat is on view until 30 September at Anant Art Centre, A-21, Sector 5, Noida. Prices of artworks range from Rs3 lakh to Rs15 lakh.