Two rivers, two cities, miles apart — the Elbe in Germany and Yamuna in Delhi are lifelines of the surrounding habitat, but that is where the apparent commonality ends. Not for Atul Bhalla though. The Delhi-based artist believes that concerns around water are universal. “It is the most essential element that we are all going to fight for in the near future,” says Bhalla. Among his work being showcased at Vadehra Art Gallery, in the exhibition “Ya Ki Kuchh Aur!” he has photographs from the Yamuna-Elbe project in Hamburg in 2011. The 40-year-old placed 12 banners on the course of the Elbe, each with a question the river was posing to people — a concept borrowed from an episode in the Mahabharata where Yudhisthir answered 54 questions that came from the river before he could drink water from it. “Why do you think questions should come from a body of water? It’s because knowledge is within the waters. The saying is that you never step into the same river, but I believe that you always step into the same river’” says Bhalla.
Preoccupied with water for over a decade now, the engagement, he says, began during childhood, when buckets of water were filled overnight at home. The Masters in Fine Arts graduate from Northern Illinois University spent the initial years of this century travelling across water bodies, from Gangotri to Rishikesh. In 2005, he exhibited “I Was Not Waving but Drowning II”, a series for which he dipped himself in the Yamuna river, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The photographs portrayed the artist gradually immersing himself, from his head near the surface of the water to mirror reflections and then completely disappearing beneath the surface. Next year, he was in Old Delhi for a residency with Khoj, where he mapped the piaus, traditional free drinking water sites of the area and showed how grime and dirt had accumulated all around them. In the current exhibition too there is the water mass, in the “Inundation” series, with endless expanse of the river merging into the sea.
There are also glimpses into the making of his project for the Heritage Transport Museum in Gurgaon in 2012. Bhalla designed a boat with two rudders to comment on the lack of flow of Yamuna; the boat thereby moves in circles, not going anywhere. Several months were spent with boat makers from Garhmukteshwar, Uttar Pradesh, to create a boat traditionally used on inland waterways. “I wanted to get an upper Ganges boat. Most people don’t want to make traditional boats because it’s not viable,” says Bhalla. The same year, during a three-month residency in South Africa he commented on the large-scale privatisation of land and resources in the country. A white chair was placed on the white hills made from a mine dump. “There have been no land reforms since the ’70s. The chair, a metonym of white, male authority, brings into focus the harsh racial history that till date is the reality of this country. The person has gone but ownership still exists,” says Bhalla.
Even as he traverses from Hamburg to Johannesburg to Delhi at the Defence Colony gallery, in Plymouth his acclaimed project “Yamuna Walk” is part of the exhibition “Walk On” — Bhalla walks the length of the river, from Palla village to the Okhla Barrage, for four days, six hours each, engaging with the water as it flows.
The exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, is on till December 20.