Dirty-grey, garbage-littered and foul-smelling, the Yamuna is now a muse for art. Even stranger, it is being coupled with Germany’s squeaky-clean Elbe river for a public art project. Not the likeliest of muses—or pairings—to someone carrying a south Delhi lens, but the idea is exactly that: Change the way you see the Yamuna.
The Yamuna-Elbe: Public Art and Outreach Project, a part of the “Germany and India 2011-2012: Infinite Opportunities” celebrations, is premised on the idea of creating ecological rivers in cities and have people “experience the rivers”.
“In Delhi, nobody goes to the river. All discussions about the Yamuna are in terms of ‘polluted’ versus ‘clean’, but it has so many aspects to it: social, political, biological and ecological. Not too many of us know about this because we don’t see it,” says artist-environmentalist Ravi Agarwal, who has co-curated the project, which began on Wednesday.
By the riverside: Gigi Scaria’s The Fountain of Purification will be one of the many works on .
In Hamburg, he says, although the Elbe is very clean, it has been tamed to a point that it looks like a water channel, with all its biodiversity wiped out because of over-engineering. “Both rivers, in very different ways, suffer from the same problems. Both have become controlled human landscapes rather than natural landscapes,” he says.
In order to bring people to the river front, its banks have been embellished with some of the most cutting-edge art from both cities. German performance artiste Ines Lechleitner will create a “Yamuna-Elbe perfume” after talking to people about it, and feeling and smelling it. “She will develop the perfume on the imagined fragrance of the rivers. The project will happen over the course of this year,” says Till Krause, land artist from Hamburg and co-curator. In all, four Indian artists and five German artists are taking part.
Delhi-based artist Atul Bhalla will engage local villagers to make small wells connected to the river-water table, made from reeds and local grass. Each well will be covered with a small translucent tent and have a question—about the river and the city—in LED running text. Gigi Scaria’s The Fountain of Purification pumps up the waters of the Yamuna into a spectacular multi-storeyed fountain which, by the final level, becomes pure enough to be served as drinking water.
Asim Waqif’s Jumna’s Satyagraha—an installation work made of the remnants of the abandoned pontoon bridge on the Geeta Colony banks of the Yamuna—is an expression of goddess Jumna’s anger at modern civilization for turning water sources into sewage canals. Historian Sohail Hashmi and environmentalist Vimlendu Jha will also conduct walks around the Yamuna to explain its history and the disaster urban development has unleashed on it. There will also be an outreach programme, including film screenings, inter-school debates, music concerts and organic food stalls.
A river front is an extremely complex space containing flora and fauna; in India it also has the added dimension of being a religious and mythological figure, says Krauss. “There is an entire cultural life around the river, people still take ritualistic baths in the river, and all of this is missed by most of the people in south Delhi,” he says. “Only when you look at the river front will you think it looks different from your typical image of ‘dirty’,” he says.
The events attempt to present the Yamuna—as well as the Elbe—as “individual entities, and not in relation to humankind,” says Agarwal. “In India, we are over-planning rivers and taking away their natural landscape. In Europe, although they are clean—the Thames, for years, has been the ideal set for the Yamuna cleanliness drives—they have been over-engineered,” he says.
“Merely talking about cleanliness is a flawed ideal,” says Agarwal.
The Yamuna-Elbe project will run till 20 November on site at the Golden Jubilee Park near Old Yamuna Bridge, Delhi.