Finally I took a walk alone to the Levee. I wanted to sit on the muddy bank and dig the Mississippi River; instead of that I had to look at it with my nose against a wire fence. When you start separating the people from their rivers what have you got? “Bureaucracy!” says Bill.
- On The Road: The Original Scroll, Jack Kerouac (1951)
Not much seems to separate it from me here-it is as though the river hides just on the other side of the damp basement wall, just through this miasmic darkness, barely contained by a fragile skin of Shahjahanabad's soft black earth. On all sides deacquisitioned books, bundled up and left to decay, heave like a billowing sea into an unexpected storm, rolling and tossing with dusty paper, string and glue and shadow. It looks like a chunky cubist cascade, cobwebs flying off and connecting the books to the largely empty bookshelves that surround them like seaspray against a craggy grottoed cliff. But here and there lights shine out through illuminated pages like stained-window magic-lantern lighthouses in the blue fog, and water spills black from a sandstone lion's head fountain at the top of the stairs, as though unstopped, pierced through by a water diviner.
A river is released somehow, a tributary stream to the dark Yamuna that flows just a short distance to the east, and so is the basement of this Delhi Public Library branch, as though Sheba Chhachhi, with her sharp divining rod, has punctured the retaining walls of colonial concrete and postcolonial bureaucracy with one well-aimed stab and transformed the long disused space-at one time a colonial swimming pool, then partly refashioned as the library's conference room-into a foggy immersive theatre, roused it like a Methuselah toad discovered sleeping underground, like the corpse of a river. Little wonder that waters so long stopped should spill out thick and black.
Now no longer a swimming pool and never yet a meeting room, pressed into service as the subterranean crypt for unwanted books, this betwixt and between place, where watery illusion seems to come naturally to a visitor standing there in the half-light, inspired Chhachhi to transform it using lights and projections, to create an immersive environment of black water and blue light. Entering the space, one passes the lion's head fountain, eerily lit and pooling black, the headwaters of this quiet and strange underground environment. A deep aquatic blue light fills the room below, casting its piles of books and light box installations into a submarine chiaroscuro. Some of the books lie open and illuminated, projecting digitally altered images from Mughal and Rajput paintings. Left alone, their painted world of moonlit lovers, riverine gardens and gopis bathing speaks to a lost, alternative imaginary of the river and its denizens, brought by the artist into an uncomfortable chiasmus with the dystopian, trash-strewn present. However, the painters' premodern reveries enter a new, poignant and contemporary relation with the river and its future: the viewer is left suspended in these cluttered waters, these twice-told liquid tales where water is laden, emulsified with sedimentary layers of meaning.
A cartographic image threads its way down the long gutter-like light box that runs along the basement steps: tattooed with an old colonial map of Delhi's once-upon-a-time waterways, it leads to the bottom of the room, where these strange streams gather into a projection screen, a liquid fantasy, an elephant submerged and turning beneath the surface. The projected image is a study in ambiguity: the fragility of this immense creature, its inhuman grace and sensuous flesh, the weight of cultural and personal memory that it embodies, dissolving and coming back together in an evanescent physics of bubbles, molecules and form. Lord Krishna saved an elephant drowning in the Yamuna. Perhaps he'll save this one too.
Mythology is tricky and dangerous: the Vedas tell us that Indra smashed Vritra with his mighty thunderbolt and released the waters. But all this talk of manly cleavings and smashings has got us off on the wrong foot. I think we need a new metaphor. Maybe it is instead the water witch alchemist, the treasure hunter searching for hidden telluric currents, for rivers flowing underground, for dark still lakes beneath the earth. Sheba Chhachhi dowsed Delhi and standing here, in this neglected basement of empire, deep in the city's soft sedimentary earth, listened for water. She opened up this locked up room and made it public again, pulling in new readers for a conversation too long deferred. The gesture is at once a discovery and an invitation to the library's users and anyone else who happens by, reinvigorating a public space by unlocking its hidden potentialities, plumbing its unseen depths.
The Water Diviner evokes a complex way of thinking about the river-not just as a hydrological problem to be managed, a pollution issue to be dealt with-and also not just as a goddess to be worshiped by devotees oblivious to the way that industrial and commercial development together conspire to destroy her body-but crucially both: somehow bringing these twinned notions into taboo wedlock. The images she uses in the work, the dreamlike fragments from paintings painfully juxtaposed with the nightmare filth that the river is forced to carry, pull us into a consideration of the bulldozers waiting to enact the riverfront's latest reenchantment, its newest triumphalist Haussmannizing transformation into a level “village” for the Commonwealth Games-and the biggest temple in the world cum IMAX theater that presaged its arrival, that bathed the whole endeavor in a preemptive sacred glow. How fitting that Chhachhi conjures such visions in this dark forgotten room, itself the object of so many damp, half-complete reinscriptions.
Dirty rivers with their shifting, soft, muddy banks resist capital's hard occult geometry, push against the sharp angles of the fantasy temple, crumble beneath the expensive stone and the glorious, ground-clearing realization of year-zero vulgarity on a mythological scale, this grand project of renewal and assertion that erases and subdues finally the soft fens and grasslands where buffaloes used to roam, premised like so many others on violent zones of exclusions, barbed wire, and labor camps.
A short walk to the south of the library takes you to Chandni Chowk, its erstwhile central canal lying entombed in stone, its waters blocked, diverted and shit in, forced underground. And yet. Fugitive streams still spill dirty in the black Yamuna and together they take flight to the Ganga and the ocean, carrying with them all the filth of man's endeavor, and the bodies the whole enterprise dumps so casually into its flow.