To understand the dynamics of Atul Bhalla’s work, it is important to engage with the environmental concerns of a generation that came of age in the 1990s. A generation that inherited a post industrial landscape of debris, detritus of manufacturing waste and a fragile ecosystem tottering on the edge of a collapse.
The city of Delhi where Bhalla lives and works may appear to observers looking from the outside as city beautiful; replete with ornate Mughal architecture and wide, tree lined avenues so typical of the spatial formation of a modern city. But in reality the city has a second face. A face that bears the scratches of environmental degradation inflicted upon it by its inhabitants. A face that remains partially veiled from public view but reveals itself in the form of ugly effluents that spew out into the life giving river Yamuna that cuts through the city, slowly choking it out of existence. If in the past the riverfront was a place of interaction and the river a conduit for barges and boats from afar, the water distribution and drainage systems put into place during the modernizing drive that redefined the architecture of the city in the colonial era, ensured the formation of a gap between the life giving river and the inhabitants of the city. It is this chasm that concerns Bhalla; a rift he tries to heal through his recent installations and photographic works that appear presented in their “completed state” even though they may have unfolded slowly over a period of time.
The city has changed rather radically in recent years. With it the concerns of artists like Bhalla too have changed. Ill equipped to handle the cultural shifts induced by market forces that have abdicated all social responsibility, he has for a while sought solace in renewing his relationship with nature, maintaining a fringe presence in an art world that has slowly succumbed to the seductive embrace of formalism. Taking long walks along the river bank, forging bonds with the people of riverside settlements, renewing his relationship with the water of the river, Bhalla has in the last decade or so of his wanderings redefined his practice by becoming an agent of change, raising questions about the environmental effects of administrative policies that seem to be driven more and more by private economic agendas rather than public good. He feels our urban spaces and ecosystems no longer seem to belong to us and the social and cultural effects of this are indeed profound for we may soon be living in a world rendered uninhabitable because of human indifference and greed.
The body of work on view at the Anant Gallery deals with themes of nature, ecology and the preservation of natural resources. Flickering and dissolving screen based images that are constantly changing colour and form, liquid flowing water contained by unyielding yet transparent layers of glass, photographs that employ the grammar of a documentary mode of recording yet are enhanced through digital tools, solid cement casts of hollow water conduit systems and text inscribed on to glass that gives voice to the unsaid, the works project a sense of uncertainty that captures the essence of the relationship between humankind and nature. As a point of departure Bhalla draws largely upon the last episode of the forest exile of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata to pose metaphysical questions about life. The episode in which the Pandavas who are about to complete their period in exile, are put to test by a Yaksha concealed in a water body is a classic “test in the wilderness” (1) device used in many epic narratives to examine the wisdom and caliber of a potential king. In the Mahabharata only Yudhishtir proves able enough to satisfy the probing questions posed by the Yaksha. Bhalla here, poses the questions to us, interrogating our wisdom in the choices we have made that has turned the river Yamuna, once a source of clean flowing water, into a bleeding mass of wounded matter. Engulfed by industrial waste and reduced to a trickle by a network of pipes, shafts and valves that siphon off the water to distant parts of the city; to bottling plants of private water suppliers, the river that has turned into a lifeless wasteland, is shown incapable of speaking for itself, unlike the water spirit of the Mahabharata. Bhalla by drawing our attention to the episode in the epic, questions our ability to make judicious choices under the onslaught of the forces of capitalism.
The “ordeal as a test” trope works a little differently in his series of photographs performing the ritual of Halal. There can be interpretative problems in reading a work that derives its meaning by pulling a practice based on scriptural imperatives out of its religious context. Made while living and working on an artists residency in Hotel Al Noor at Chitli Kabar in the walled city of old Delhi, the photographs document the act of cutting the throat of a ram, emptying it of its blood to eventually turn it into a water collection container, the mashk. While Bhalla’s quest may appear to reaffirm the patriarchal symbolism of the ritual and its embodiment of the notion of maleness, the quest’s ultimate goal of creating a water conservation device again creates a sense of ambiguity as the act of sacrifice is then seen as a beneficial act that legitimates an act of violence. In the exhibition though, Bhalla offers us a stop action series of images presenting just his bloodstained hands. The work titled Wash/Water/Blood thus pulled out of its context offers us an alternative frame of reference underlining the polysemic content of the rite and its powerful symbolism.
This secularized creative elucidation of religious imagery by someone who is “outside” of religion suggests that artistic interpretations have their own meaningful space whereby religious imagery can be used to contribute to the perceptual construction of contemporary experiences. Take for example the video of a tree being felled, and the meticulous documentation of the slow depletion of sap from the log of wood over a period of time. It has echoes of the ancient ritual of cutting a tree deep in the wilderness and bringing it back to human habitation in order to install it in a prominent public space. This is seen by scholars as a pledge, affirming the power of Indra, the god of weather and war in the Hindu pantheon. Bhalla’s use of the imagery though, is connected to his active engagement with rain harvesting projects in his neighborhood.
The network of transactions that exist in natural ecosystems have ensured the longevity of the human species over the centuries. Water that rains down is held in store by trees and vegetation, while under the earth, a mesh of roots accumulates the water for us. A tree trunk swells and grows, throwing out more branches and roots, widening the area of catchments and increasing the supply of water. While this may not be visible to the naked eye, Bhalla forces usto acknowledgetheimportance of natural systems of conservation and the prudence of living as one with nature rather than adhering to the principle of dominion over nature by focusing on the capacity of wood fiber as a water container.
Wood, water and sand combined with glass, light and projection makes this particular body of work visually and sensually rich. In using material as metaphor Bhalla offers us an aesthetic mediation whereby we drawn towards a realization of the interconnectedness of life. His ability to frame complex abstract values through visual form makes this body of work much more than an act of object making. It offers us a philosophy of life that shows us a way of living as one with nature.
(1) Nancy E. Falk Wilderness and Kingship in Ancient South Asia History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 1
From the catalogue of the exhibition 'Immersions' published by Anant Art Gallery (2007).