As a marauding axe invades the innards of a tree, chipping away slowly but persistently in Atul Bhalla’s video installation “Sap”, the lines of Gieve Patel’s poem “On killing a tree” spring to mind.
“It takes much time to kill a tree
Not a simple jab of the knife
Will do it. It has grown
Slowly consuming the earth”
Each blow in this act of violence is brutal albeit in a quiet yet poignant way. With the depletion of the tree’s sap, life force energies ebb away leaving a festering wound in its wake with the chunks of wood being scooped out mimicking chunks of flesh in this rape of nature. While the video brings with it connotations of the degradation of our environment and mankind’s role in it, the work also needs to be examined in the context of Bhalla’s ongoing preoccupation with water, it’s various avatars and the issues that it rakes up. At a formal level the artist is more interested in foregrounding wood as a receptacle of water and focusing on the complex crisscrossing of water capillaries within. It is to underline this aspect that Bhalla stacked up blocks of wood from the felled tree with a chart documenting the weight of each piece on the 18th of November 2005 and again a year later. The incredible 50 percent decrease in its weight is attributed to a loss of moisture from the dead wood underlining the complex linkages between the body and the water systems that surround us. In his digital photographs “Sap” he presents us with multiple frames of the same act of mutilation. These prints placed next to each other but separated in real time render the process as an abstract vision. There is a deep sense of loss that informs the installation and digital prints - an irrevocable process in which what is lost can never be restored again.
The violence that runs through this strand of work shown at the Anant Art Centre in March 2007 seems to echo another act of brutality committed nearly a year ago by the artist during “Dilli Dur Ast”, a Khoj residency project in old Delhi. There Bhalla used the hallal method to slaughter a goat in his quest to fashion a traditional mashk or water container. It was indeed ironical that a life - albeit of a goat - had to be taken to create a device to supply water, the elixir of life. “Wash/Water/Blood”, a powerful set of twenty two digital prints document a photo-performance of the artist in the aftermath of that killing. Bhalla consciously did not exhibit the series during the residency to avoid communicating any sense of regret at having snuffed out a life. For viewers conversant with the earlier work, this series invokes shades of Macbeth “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash the blood clean from my hand?” For others the works have a delicious ambiguity about them as they can construct their own narrative and readings into the attempt to cleanse a pair of bloodied hands. There is again a mingling of fluids both internal (blood) and external (tap water) as the clear stream turns a bloody red, sullied like so many of our water bodies.
In his photographs Bhalla is very keen on forging a new way for himself by not denying the very act of photography. Rather he would like his works to highlight the experience of getting the picture. “I want to put back the element of performance inherent in taking the picture back into the frame”.
At his show in Delhi Bhalla also expands on his preoccupation with water devices, negotiating the bylanes of Delhi to document a series of piaos, dispensers of free water in the walled city. He also turns his lens to focus on municipal taps, hand pumps, pipes and sinks in various states of disrepair and degradation as if valorising them and highlighting our cavalier attitude towards these devices. He has in the past contrasted this largesse towards water in old Delhi with the commodification of water in New Delhi. In a telling photograph an old, decrepit hand pump opens onto an open drain while in the background a photograph of a bottle of “pure” Bisleri water graces the cover of a stepney. But the artist also discovers that increasingly potable water is being supplied in the form of plastic “Mayur jugs” to shops very much like a tiffin being delivered by a dabbawallah.
Placed around the gallery space like exhibits in a natural museum are aquariums filled with water in which a number of objects cast in Yamuna sand and cement lie. Playing with translucence and opacity, reflection and refraction and the concept of spaces within spaces, Bhalla offers casts of the space occupied by water in cisterns, water closets, a log of wood, jerry cans and mineral water bottles. This time round he places vitrines within vitrines and juggles with the level of water to produce pieces that intrigue the viewer. Heightening the experience are words like “darkness”, “desire”, “myself” etched on the glass which reference a dialogue between a water spirit and Yudhishthra in the Mahabharata. Bhalla stumbled upon this interchange in Peter Brook’s rendering of the epic and uses it to pose questions to the viewer as well.
Voice: What can cover the earth?
Voice: An example of grief
Voice: What is your opposite?
Here the artist frames water as a site of knowledge and history and forces us to acknowledge that the river, especially the Yamuna that flows through the capital, was often the life blood of the city connecting ancient centres of civilisation and thought. Bemoaning the degradation of the river by the callous attitude of the city’s inhabitants, he offers us a highly romanticized and almost utopian vision of the river in “Yamuna morning” and “Submerged”. By doing so he urges us to reconnect with the river and to rediscover its properties of healing and rejuvenation.