Artists

“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

- Heraclitus

“You always step into the same river.” - Atul Bhalla

Atul Bhalla’s latest show at Vadhera Art Gallery titled Anhedonic Dehiscence brings together some of his old and new works that address more than a decade long engagement with water. His work over the years has spanned a project where water has served as both an object and subject of his philosophical and socio-political inquiry. Bhalla has frequently chosen to employ a wide array of materials and mediums in his oeuvre - photography, sculpture, photo-performance, video and installations­­. What is this obsession with water that the artist has held for so long? Why does it become for him the core motif for his artistic production and where does it lead him in this quest for truth? In his own words:

My work is an attempt to understand water.

How I perceive it, feel it, eat it, drink it, wash in it, bathe in it, swim, wade, sink or drown in it.

How I drench, soak, douse, moisten, quench, dilute, dampen, cleanse, or purify.

How I excrete tears, sweat, or urine.

How it falls, drops, floods, inundates, levels, buoys, lashes, gushes, swells and ripples.

How it exists as fog, mist, cloud, steam, snow, sleet, rain, or puddle.

How it contains or is contained.

How it is dammed or bottled. [1]

The Physical

The current show has on display most of these mediums and programmatically seeks to invite the viewers into a layered body of work trying to unpack our ecological crisis. Spread over the three floors of Vadhera Art Gallery, New Delhi, the show can be thought of on three thematic levels - physical, historical and social. The perplexing title of the show might put the viewers on the back foot at first, but the ground floor which might be considered under the theme ‘physical’, begins to unravel its complexities. It houses archival pigment prints of different sizes, a video installation, a sculpture and a sound and light installation. Small and large self-portraits of the artist ostensibly mark his presence, with that of the contemplation over the physical body of water. A large portrait hung on the wall casts its reflection ominously on a rectangular container of water on the floor; telling in its ability to absorb all. One is taken through Bhalla’s recurring motif of water bodies - close ups of rippled surfaces, chaotic and calm at the same time, reflecting darker hues in the sky, or with sporadic growth of vegetation.

Unidentified landscapes or waterscapes are scarred by ribbon like wounds ­- taking us back to reflect on the term ‘dehiscence’. As a botanical term, it defines the breaking open of plant structures along a built-in line of weakness, that releases the contents inside; often those of which are fruits and sporangia. In general, the term may refer to a rupture or splitting open of a wound, organ or structure to discharge its inner contents. If botanically, the term has a life affirming notion attached to it, in Bhalla’s landscapes/waterscapes the term leans more towards signaling a wounded ecology. In Anhedonic Still life I, a large archival pigment print, we see a conscious arrangement of books as diverse as the Mahabharata, titles by Anna Akhmatova, or on Louis Borgeoise or Joseph Beuys; a slab of raw meat on a plate, a positive cement mould of a large glass and a glass of water. Seen in its totality, this diverse group of objects has a stimulating, intelligent side as well as a raw, essential and visual aspect that is bereft of pleasure. The curatorial note outlines this quality as ‘anhedonic alienation and dissociation’, stressing on anhedonic dehiscence as ‘the social condition’.

The Historical

On the second floor, the second thematic level, we are almost arrested by a single word writ large on the wall of the staircase in bold red font - TRUTH. As specified in the note, it is water, which for Bhalla becomes the universal signifier of truth, both in its totality and in its form. We see similarly themed prints/photographs from the first floor carrying over to the second, but now juxtaposed with an added layer of ‘truth’ as a historical marker. History and memory coalesce in a single channel video projection (Flower Punjab) where an arabesque design, possibly taken from a mosque, is overlaid with slivers of wound-like projections. They constantly move in and out of the frame in a chaotic disarray, and point towards an unfixed location of historical truth. Likewise, a print titled ‘Fictitious Landscape’ (part of a series) shows a hillside scape where the same arabesque motif is embedded into the green hills. The viewer, so far challenged by these conceptually loaded works, is finally guided towards the third and last installment of the exhibition that culminates in the final thematic of ‘the social’.

The Social

On the third floor of the gallery, yet again a single word imprinted on the wall -WAS - confronts the viewer. Before the incomplete sentence can baffle, the artist has led us to this sentence - Truth was supposed to hit home before a lie. Titled, Objects of fictitious togetherness - I, this floor brings together an elaborate installation of different sizes of brass glasses, some engraved, some plain, but all with an equally strong aura of nostalgia and years of usage. Arranged on a circular wooden table, this installation is surrounded by wall mounted prints, installations and poetry. A poem by Amrita Pritam (“ Aaj Mere Waris Shah Nu…/To Waris Shah Today…”), bemoaning the absence of Waris Shah (a renowned Punjabi Sufi poet of the Chishti order) and calling out for his wisdom and love in the Partition stricken Punjab; is inscribed on one of the walls. Yet another wall is occupied by Pash’s poetry (“Sabse Khatarnak/The Most Dangerous”) on the dangers of being silent witnesses and against the drudgery of work. Large scale mirror finish stainless steel sculptures of the Arabic words - Hindu, Muslim and ‘Paani’ (Water) are hung on the walls and the staircase and in their isolation - as standalone art objects - the artist excavates the socio-historical narratives of pre-Partition Punjab. An accompanying concept note traces the origin of the multiple stories connected to the empty brass glasses, prints taken from the walls of religious sites and the significant role played by water.

We may see parallel accounts in historian Rajmohan Gandhi’s book, Punjab (a source of reference for the artist) and the artist’s rumination over his own cultural past, where he seeks to understand “the notions of truth within the Punjabiyat and the South Asian context of Partition.” [2] Rajmohan Gandhi in his book talks about the relationship and social engagement of the people in the 1900s ofPunjab,wherewaterwasaway to bridge communal tension. People (Hindu, Muslim, and Sikhs) were forced to drink water from the same glass, thus drinking the other’s jhoot. [3] Based on this ceremonial idea of bringing people together, Bhalla asks the question, “…and what of the water and the glass from which all of them drank?” Water becomes the symbolic and glass (container) the concrete bearer in this ritual of peaceful living and cohabiting. Bhalla’s ancestral village of Sri Hargobindpur, in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab is also evoked for its communal harmony in the pre-Partition era and the social pogrom it went through, like much of India.

It is this glass that he calls the “elusive glass of fictitious togetherness.”

We can perhaps begin to understand and contemplate the significance of Atul Bhalla’s works in the somewhat new, yet urgent domain of Eco-Aesthetics. Malcolm Miles, in his book Eco-Aesthetics grapples with this new category with equal parts doubt and certainty. He is sceptical about definite categorizations, as “subfields tend to reproduce the exclusionary tendencies of the fields from which they depart or to mask inadequacies in some of the practices which they contain.” [4] Both art and ecology for Miles are not rigidly bounded but expanded fields. Bhalla’s approach to his own artistic production can be comprehended in these terms. In his 2006 photographic series, ‘Piaus I’ (also 2008, Piaus II) (water spigots) - a public source of drinking water - Bhalla treats water as “both symbol and source of renewal and reexamination” [5] Other projects, involving his long standing preoccupation with the river Yamuna in New Delhi, involves making sense of the larger ecologies - such as the urban communities that surround the river and their development - that are affected by it. Water as a natural object here, is not a fetishized form but operates as a philosophical idea which is inflected by social, political and historical registers of enquiry.

NOTES

[1] Artist talk by Atul Bhalla: You Always Step into the Same River, Institute for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley,

[2] Rajmohan Gandhi, Punjab: a history from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2013. Punjabiyat here might be understood as a phenomenon of largesse and sacrifice, on which both Hindus and Muslims pride themselves in India and across the border in Pakistan, Curatorial Note for the exhibition.

[3] It is something that is practiced as an exclusionary cultural tactic in many Indian communities. Loosely translated, it would mean drinking or eating something that is leftover, waste or simply contaminated by the touch of the other’s lips.

[4] See Malcolm Miles, Introduction, Eco-aesthetics: Art, literature and architecture in a period of climate change, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014, p 2-10.

[5] See https://www.sepiaeye.com/atul-bhalla/

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