Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Chennai Kothu: Down the drain

A day before the Chennai Photo Biennale was to launch, Andreas Deffner, a curator of one of its exhibitions, Thadagam or Urban Water; Helmut Schippert, director of the Goethe-Institut; and Amirtharaj Stephen, a photographer who is part of the biennale team, got a canoe and rowed through the stinking cesspool that is the Buckingham canal.

It was a publicity stunt for the biennale, the first in the city, but it also effectively made some of us look closely at the sewer that the canal has become.

The canal runs alongside the city’s Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS), and Urban Water is mounted at its Lighthouse station. The exhibition displays the works of 15 photographers from India and abroad, a few from the city itself. The photographers came down to Chennai in January and were asked to choose their own themes; this task was facilitated by photographers familiar with the city, like Stephen, and mentored by Bangladeshi photographer Munem Wasif and Ravi Agarwal of Delhi-based non-profit Toxics Link.

A slew of exhibitions, events, films, workshops and talks make up the biennale.

“It’s important to remember that the floods happened (in December) even as we were planning to bring the photographers down to shoot in Chennai. It wasn’t a reaction to the floods," says Agarwal. He adds: “We also didn’t want to just put flood photographs. Disasters can be read as disasters. We wanted people to react to other dimensions of why disasters happen. To me, it’s important to get the idea of urban ecology back into the debate, because ecology is usually only an afterthought. We make the drains after building the buildings. We look for water after getting people to live there."

A work on display at Urban Water. Photo: Jordi Pizarro
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A work on display at Urban Water. Photo: Jordi Pizarro

Keeping this in mind, the photographers chose a diverse range of themes, areas and methods to approach the idea of urban water. While each photographer’s work critiques the city’s water systems, Arun Vijai Mathavan focused on Velachery, one of the suburbs worst hit by the floods, Jordi Pizarro and Karen Dias on Nalla Thanni Odai (NTO) Kuppam, a lone village in north Chennai that is refusing to relocate, and Swastik Pal on why fishermen in the Ennore region were up in arms against a port on the northern fringes of the city. They highlight the diversity of the issues that the southern metropolis faces when it comes to water.

A repeat offender

“The flooding wasn’t something new in Velachery, it was the scale that was devastating," says Mathavan, who is studying photography at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. Mathavan, who is from Kanyakumari, had been living in Velachery for nearly a year, working in an information technology company before quitting his job to enrol in NID. “When I was living there, I always knew that the area was built on top of lakes and water bodies but never thought about it seriously. But after going through last year’s floods, these thoughts, which were always on the back burner, became more real."

This southern suburb is prone to floods, especially during the monsoon in November. The deluge of 2015 completely submerged the area for more than a week—the only way to navigate the place was in boats. Over the last decade or so, Velachery has also become an attractive residential destination, with its proximity to the airport, railway lines and gigantic malls, including the largest one in the city, Phoenix mall (incidentally, built atop a flood plain). Not only was this large- scale infrastructure badly affected during the floods, the area’s reputation among realtors and prospective home owners took a hit too.

“I wanted to look at these faded lakes, such as the Velachery lake, that have been plundered for development. Many of the arterial roads that make this area a realtor’s dream are also the primary triggers for excessive construction," says Mathavan. He adds: “Earlier, the people of this area must have built their settlements around the various lakes and the nearby Pallikaranai marshland. People hardly think about these water bodies now though. The December floods were a reminder that even if you don’t think about water, the same water will come back to haunt you."

A work on display at Urban Water. Photo: Arun Vijai Mathavan
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A work on display at Urban Water. Photo: Arun Vijai Mathavan

The village in the middle of a highway

The name NTO Kuppam literally means “the village that is alongside the clean water canal". Over the last many years, however, more than 3km of NTO Kuppam’s coastline has eroded rapidly owing to the nearby Chennai port. Over the past few years, the government has been trying to persuade the 400-odd families there to relocate because there are plans for a highway to facilitate movement of cargo. The villagers have refused to move.

As the brief to Pizarro’s work detailed: “They spent their entire lives in the open spaces and have a strong connection with the sea, with water and the nature that surrounds their village. The NTO Kuppam village is their home, their identity: ‘If we lose our identity we will lose who we are’."

While NTO Kuppam is in the consistently neglected northern part of the city, the floods did not have a devastating effect here. Yet, the villagers’ refusal to be relocated away from the sea is a constant struggle. With the shoreline moving ever more inward, they are losing land to both development and erosion.

Speaking about the days she spent photographing at NTO Kuppam, Mumbai-based Goan, Dias says: “The people here, they know the oceans, when the catch will be good and when bad, and they can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing anything else. I wanted to get an idea of what it will be like for the next generation, what will be left for them?"

A disaster in waiting

Located 20km to the north of the city, the Ennore creek is a region drained by two small rivers and filled with lagoons, salt marshes and backwaters. The creek and the sea adjacent to it are the primary fishing grounds for the 1,500 families in nearby Mugathuvaarkuppam and Kattukuppam, who mainly catch prawns and crabs. The creek is also adjacent to a 450 MW thermal power plant and the Kamarajar Port.

The power plant reportedly dumps excess hot water into the sea while dredged sand from the port is dumped into the creek, making it uninhabitable for fish and destroying the livelihood of families dependent on fishing. “It was this conflict that I wanted to capture," says Kolkata-based Swastik Pal. “My long-term work deals with the destruction of the Sunderbans, so shooting in Ennore was somewhat similar. That is more rural and this is completely urban, so the ground realities were different. The problems here were of many layers as well. I was interested in how they’ll take the fight forward."

The works of these photographers are bound to strike a chord with the people of Chennai. As Agarwal says: “Everyone understands water, more politically and more strategically, than we give people credit for. This exhibition will be a success if people see the images and sustain the ideas that they ignite in the mind."

The Chennai Photo Biennale is being held at venues across the city till 13 March. For details, visit

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Chennai who tweets at @sibi123.

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