Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On the Edge of Water: Atul Bhalla at Vadehra Gallery

(Atul Bhalla)

A plasma television screen at the second floor space at the Vadehra Gallery, New Delhi beams the image of a kaner plant (Nerium Oleander) with flowers. A closer look reveals that this is a zoomed in video footage of the plant that is generally seen planted by the authorities in the small strips of land marked out for/as road dividers. As a common sight in Delhi, none gives too much attention to these plants waving their heads, not exactly in the gentle breeze but in the slapping air movements created by the speeding vehicles on the road. When Atul Bhalla zooms in his video camera on this plant, it becomes a metaphor, a surrogate being, a person and someone or something destined to be there only to receive the worst treatment that one could ever have.

(still from Kaner Kaner)

This video titled, ‘Kaner Kaner’ is a part of a solo show of Atul Bhalla, ‘On the Edge’, currently on at the Vadehra Art Gallery, Okhla Phase 1, New Delhi. Though Atul has been hailed as an artist who has a ‘sustained preoccupation with the eco-politics of water’, this particular work does not connect directly to the water politics, but it connects very subtly to the politics of urban existence. When you see the Kaner plant getting slapped by the strong air generated by the speeding motor vehicles, if you are sensitive person, you feel like getting slapped left and right while standing in the middle of a road, in fact for no fault of yours.

(Kaner at Shahdra Drain. series of photographs)

Kaner plant, a simple google research would tell you that, is a toxic plant with a non-toxic appearance. Toxicity of anything is nature’s attribution for survival as some animals and plants resort to camouflaging and secretions. However, studies have proved that it’s pronounced toxicity is not fatal and the calamities caused by this plant are negligible. Seen against this backdrop, a kaner plants, planted along the road dividers could represent the urban underlings who are ‘toxic or waste’ in planners’ parlance but still a necessity in the name of construction and beautification, for paltry remunerations. Then seen within the actual context of the plant, and also seen along with the eighteen frames of photographs titled ‘Kaner on Shahdra Drain’ one understands how the ‘toxicity’ created by the urbanized, fast moving, affluent classes, in fact, could ‘kill’ the so called ‘toxic’ but beautiful plants. In Kaner on Shahdra Drain, Atul, through these eighteen photographs shows how the ‘ever green’ kaner dries up or dies within the days of its flowering thanks to environmental pollution caused both by the drains and the vehicles.

(Peripheral God- from the installation)

Somehow, death vis-a-vis water and environment comes to Atul as a recurring theme. It could be subconscious response to the idea of depletion and decay of the environment but Atul connects it with larger ethical issues when it comes to an installation like ‘Peripheral God’. A few tree stumps are strewn on the gallery floor as if it were a site of deforestation and on the wall, a hazy picture of a dog is framed in a diptych format. The ethical issue that drives Atul seems to be the breaching of invisible social contracts such as love, trust, co-habitation, protection by the government and so on. The narrative that Atul adopts to underline this breach is from the last phase of Mahabharata. Yudhishtira, after the victory in the war and after the realization of nothingness in victories, walks to heavens only to be followed by a dog in this arduous journey. The eldest of the Pandavas was denied permission to enter heaven because of the dog as he insisted that only when the dog is allowed entry, he would go inside. Finally, his wish is granted and the dog reveals himself as Yamadharma (the God of death).

The journey of Yudhishtira, after all kinds of victories, emphasises the presence of Death in anything that man does. Dog therefore becomes a memento mori, a reminder of death. And as a faithful animal it follows man wherever he goes, like a shadow. Dog obeys so long as he loves it, gives it food and shelter. Even when man chases the dog away he comes back. This metaphor that Atul uses in his work also implies that all kinds of human progresses have death as an assured and ingrained entity in them. Besides, there is a sort of word play, as in Dog becomes God and vice versa. Dog, as manifested in Dharmaraja (Yamadharma) , God of Death, becomes a peripheral dog, a perpetual companion of human beings but always pushed to the peripheries.

(still from Yudhishtira washing)

When Atul works on ‘Yudhishtira Washing’ an eight minute long video, he deliberately chooses an old man at an unspecified ghat (river front). Here we see this impoverished old man, with a body vandalized by time, sitting and washing a piece of saffron cloth in the water. The more he rinses and wrenches it the more the water turns saffron. The process continues endlessly. Does it remind the viewer of the water that washes away all the sins (could be relevant when seen in Atul’s concern with the political meaning of water)? Or more politically, the ideology in you that had been leading you all the way to victory, one day manifests before you in the form of death and revelation? Death is a very palpable feeling when one watches this video.

(from Listeners from West Heaven)

For me, the notion of death in Atul’s concern, vis-a-vis his aesthetical involvement with eco-water politics, once again comes to manifest in his video titled, ‘Listeners from West Heaven’. I don’t know why listeners and West Heaven as I am not provided with textual clues than the title. But what I could read out from the 23 minutes long video where Atul himself is seen harking for some sound on the ground in different locations, is the nuances of his artistic enquiries into the waters that are lost, controlled, tamed and eventually disappeared. The death of the River Saraswati comes to my mind. In Hindu mythologies we find River Saraswati disappearing from the face of the earth. Disappearance is a sort of death or vice versa. Atul, an artist from India, while keeping his ears closer to the ground, either it should be to listen to the music of grasshoppers or to hark the gurgling sounds of all those ‘dead’ rivers like Saraswati. I would like to believe in the latter reading.

(Basel Walk)

Training his ears for listening to the voices of the lost/dead rivers, has been a pet theme for Atul for some time. In one of his previous works, he walked along the shores of Yamuna river only to document the number of pump houses installed along the river bank. Pump houses not only pump water for domestic and agricultural use, a linking thread between the urban and rural economy perhaps, but also control the amount of water that has to be used by the people in different localities of the city. So, even the water distribution could be controlled depending on the social hierarchies and locations of power. Taking this inquiry into a different dimension Atul also had documented the manholes and drain covers in different cities and assembled them to produce a visual ensemble of control and power. The same method he employs while working on his ‘Basel Walk’. In this work, Atul documents the water valves and their bronze and iron covers seen along the paths of Switzerland.

(Aaj Bhi)

In an overtly political work that Atul did in Bodh Gaya, Bihar as a part of the international workshop organized by Sanjeev Sinha and Dianne Hagen, he had created a huge flex board that says, ‘Aaj Bhi Vahi Sab Hota Raha’ (Those Things Keep Happening even Today). It was performative, collaborative, participatory and public in nature when the actual work was done and the banner later floated along the Ganges and documented from the Mahatma Gandhi Setu Bridge, the largest bridge in the world. In ‘On the Edge’ show Atul presents digital photographs from the project, highlighting the environmental, political and ethical depletions still keep happening in the body politic of Bihar in particular and India in general. Atul abstracts the political critique by giving emphasis to the pillars of the bridge in a couple of digital works titled ‘Distant’.


As an end note, I would like to say that one of the highlights of the show is a wash basin with a faucet spluttering water through some kind of automatic mechanism. The wash basin becomes a new altar and to worship that one could sit in a chair that is strategically placed a few feet away from it. You sit and wait for the tap to eject a stream of water. And after sometimes it becomes a game between you and the water.

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