Atul Bhalla

In conversation with Atul Bhalla for his new show (…ya ki kuchh aur!)

Written by Monica Arora

As the mighty Khalil Gibran had once remarked, “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans; in one aspect of You are found all the aspects of existence.” Meeting with Atul Bhalla on a balmy November afternoon in the Vadehra Art Gallery situated at the leafy Defence Colony in New Delhi, accompanied by Anubha Gupta, Director, ARTSOME.CO, I almost felt that his relationship to water was reverential, bordering on the ethereal! Every photograph, installation or poster that he has ever created resonates his deep connect with this element of nature. Having grown up in a colony of West Delhi, he recollects how every morning would invariably begin with the sound of water flowing into the empty bucket that had been kept strategically under it overnight. That made him realize how much of a struggle it was for an average middle-class household in Delhi to ensure a fresh water bath and saving some extra for other mundane chores like cooking, cleaning, washing, et al.

He recalls another incident when on his way to Mumbai in the year 2000 when they were almost at the outskirts of the metropolis where it had been raining incessantly and the River Vapi had swollen with a vengeance. So much so that when he stepped near the door of the train for some fresh air, all he saw was water right on the railway tracks and he remembers having this strange urge to just stretch his hand and reach out to the water.  Both these incidents or memories had a great impact upon his psyche and owing to his innate propensity towards water, its scarcity, the pollution of rivers, for instance the choking Yamuna in Delhi, the empathy or sheer ignorance of the state and people alike, and many inter-related issues, he decided to work with water as his theme, muse and inspiration.

The exhibition comprises photographs and videos, reflecting the artist’s interpretation of diverse environments whilst addressing larger issues involving water politics, wastage and consumption and the human detachment with nature, particularly in urban landcsapes. The show documents works that have been created 2012 onwards focusing specifically on three critical projects in three diverse locations, Inundation in Hamburg, Germany, Deliverance in New Delhi, India and Contestation in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Following are some excerpts from a candid tete-a-tete that we had with him seated bang opposite his epochal work from the ‘Deliverance’ series.

1. I love the title of your evocative show as all works depicted herein are merely the tip of the iceberg. There is so much that lies beneath that can be explored, understood and interpreted by viewers. 

For example, ‘Deliverance’ has this boat just before hitting the surface of water; moments prior to its first contact to water, the main area of its functionality for the remainder of its life. It reminds me of the apprehensions and uncertainties that cloud the mind before embarking on anything new in any arena of life. Is that what you endeavour to convey, besides of course issues pertaining to the stagnating river and issues concerning the Mallah community?

Well it could also be interpreted as the reverse as in the boat could also just be in a stage when it is about to be lifted out of the water. So besides conveying an uncertain future, it can also depict a stagnant river that was once sustaining an entire city. That is the beauty of this painting. When I was commissioned this project, everyone laughed at me thinking who would be crazy enough to make a boat from all organic materials in the city of Delhi and then set it afire for the video. But for me the belief in my subject and the connect with my issues are so strong that I went ahead and created these and they have been received very warmly and generated much curiosity all over the world where I have travelled with them.

2. It is evident that paucity of water as a resource is of prime concern to you as a conscious world citizen, and even more so as an artist. How did this awareness come about? How did you decide to use your art as a means to highlight the intertwining issues of water scarcity, conservation of natural resources, sustenance of ecology, and so on?

I have been a teacher for the last 15 years and feel the urge to bring to the fore matters pertaining to our dwindling natural resources, particularly water. As I have discussed earlier, the two instances that jolted me out of my skin and immediately urged me to work with water were the points of initiation of my journey and there has been no looking back. Yes, I could have opted for an advertising agency as an art director or something as a more lucrative career option but fortunately, teaching gives me enough to sustain and yet offers me that window of time to pursue my passion, my art.

It is high time that every man is explained and made to understand the vitality of conserving water as a precious resource and also to be educated in their language how to preserve water. I certainly am not a political or social activist but through my exhibitions, walks and posters, churned out in Hindi, the language of the masses, I like to connect with the masses and do my bit for the environment.

3. The stark African landscape surrounding the white chair is indeed a very powerful statement on violation of human rights, equality issues, and apartheid in South Africa and clearly depicts the conflict between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. To me it is the best interpretation of your title which literally translates into ‘This or something else…?’ Kindly elaborate the thought behind these.

Interestingly, when I visited Johannesburg in South Africa, I was completely enamoured by the huge volumes of dust-like white mounds that had been dug out from the ground for the gold mines. These huge mounds of waste lay in an open area which was almost as huge as the city and lay all around its peripheries. And of course I learned about the land politics, besides ongoing issues around land privatisation and ownership, and the violent political and social history of South Africa. So outdated were these laws that anything discovered on the land at any point in the country, even if it was of strategic or historical importance, belonged to the land-owner. I was quite enamoured and baffled by these dichotomies when I discovered this quaint white corduroy jacketed chair at the hotel where I was lodging. That is where the idea germinated in my head and I ended up carrying the chair all over and shot images against the natural landscape of South Africa.

4. ‘Inundation’ to me was like a literal outpouring of the distressed soul’s angst urging fellow human beings to wake up to the harsh reality staring them in the face and do something before it is too late. In this case it is creating awareness or consciousness about the urgency of preservation of water bodies, the life-sustaining resources without which all living organisms will fail to exist. It is pertinent for every individual at a micro-level to immerse oneself within and ponder over ways to preserve and save water and as a society as a whole on the macro-level to act with urgency and immediacy for water conservation. What was your inspiration behind this series?

Well, the saying goes that you never step into the same river twice but my belief is the exact opposite. Based on the assumption that there is a fixed amount of natural water bodies on the planet and that they all are interconnected, it is actually the same volume of water that has flown down a river or sea over hundreds and thousands of centuries. Hence, we could be stepping into the same water that Swamy Vivekenanda or Mahatama Gandhi or perhaps Gautam Buddha had stepped into years ago. Thus, stepping into water is like this internal meditation, this inundation or discovery of the self.

For my video Dwaipayana, I have even been inspired by the story of the saint Ved Vyasa, credit to have authored the great Indian epic the Mahabharata.  He was the son of Satyavati, daughter of the fisherman Dusharaj, and the wandering sage Parashara (who is accredited for being the author of the first Purana, the Vishnu Purana). He was born on an island in the river Yamuna and being dark-complexioned, he was accorded the name of the name Krishna (black), Dwaipayana (island-born). I is believed that he was conceived on a boat, right in the waters of the pristine Yamuna. For me, the birth of this great epic with its author on a water body was so moving that I somehow got instantly drawn.

Another important mythical tale from the Mahabharata refers to Duryodhana’s retirement to a lake after witnessing the death of his 99 brothers whilst he is contemplating his revenge on the Pandavas. And, finally when the five Pandavas are retreating to heaven and stop by a water body to quench their thirst, Arjuna, Bheem, Nakul and Sahdev are killed by Yaksha but only when Yudhishthara, the eldest and siest amongst them responds correctly to all of Yaksha’s questions, they are revived and continue their final pilgrimage.

‘What will be my defeat’ or ‘Have you stepped into the same river today’? are some of my posters and titles of the ‘Inundation’ series, which are inspired by these very mythical and cultural references to water and their significance in the Hindu way of life.

5. All your photographs feature only you or natural landscapes and you have not used a model for the purpose. Why is that?

Actually, I find it very intrusive to shoot others. Voyeurism for me is a complete breach of someone’s privacy and hence, I prefer to capture my moods, sentiments, emotions whilst I am experiencing a particular landscape or water body and that exact expression is what I strive to share with my audience. Therefore, I only use my own images.

6. Kindly share your views on the ‘Save Ganga’ project initiated with much fanfare and gusto by the new PM Narendra Modi? How effective would these measures be in realizing the main purpose of optimal utilization of water and all natural resources?

I hope that with the right measures like optimal functioning of sewage plants, no industrial effluents being dumped, no washing, immersion of idols, and other activities being embarked on the river bank, and with generation of overall awareness about maintaining the sanctity of the river, the project should prove to be a success. And I repeat that at an individual level it is pertinent that we learn to respect our natural resources, our eco system our precious minerals and natural fuels so that we can offer some hope to our future generations.

7. What does a typical day in the life of Atul Bhalla look like in the bustling metropolis of Delhi?

As I discussed earlier, I teach in a school and besides, I have begun mentoring the first batch of Fine Arts students at the Shiv Nadar University at Greater Noida, where I go and teach three days in a week. Of course, teething problems are there, this being the very first batch, but we are working around these minor hiccups. So, I have my studio and workshop set up in an enclosure where students observe me at my craft and pick up nuances. Besides, there are three other prominent artists who is mentoring this batch of 12 students and there are labs set up for sculpting, pottery, carpentry, photograph processing, and so on wherein students can hone their skills in any or all and accordingly learn to balance the technical with the aesthetic. Must confess, I am thoroughly enjoying myself!

About the exhibition ‘(ya ki kuchh aur!)’, Atul Bhalla’s final comments were:

“My work is in the documentary mode but it is not a documentary itself. Research alone does not work, what is important for me to produce work is engagement. I need to engage with different environments, visit and revisit places and people that I find will lead me to the next step. This is what I mean by immersion again, this constant exploration. Be it the boat making or me carrying a chair around an African landscape, these are very corporeal experiences for me. I need to be there doing it, sometimes again and again.”

The much alive and energetic interaction with Atul Bhalla made me ponder and reflect how an unusual muse and a universal cause continue to inspire and show the light to this young artist and he strives forward relentlessly in his pursuit. His journey is almost meditative as he continues to draw his strength from water and expresses his myriad thoughts via his art. The following words by Osho encapsulate for me the artists’s reckoning with his muse. “One thing: you have to walk, and create the way by your walking; you will not find a ready-made path. It is not so cheap, to reach to the ultimate realization of truth. You will have to create the path by walking yourself; the path is not ready-made, lying there and waiting for you. It is just like the sky: the birds fly, but they don’t leave any footprints. You cannot follow them; there are no footprints left behind.”

The show ran in Vadehra Art Gallery, Defence Colony, New Delhi until 20th December 2014