All ancient cities have come about on banks of rivers, rivers that have nourished the cities in all manners one can think of, the cities in return worshipping them building into the myths and histories of the city. The cities have the river ingrained into their consciousness, a collective consciousness that is carried on and enriched from generation to generation.But sometimes there are attempts to wipe out such collective consciousnesses, even though the attempts may not be direct but may result from an unthinking attempt at globalizing/ progressing without thinking.
Delhi is such a city and the river it neglects is the Yamuna, on whose bank and on which its very existence depends. There has been a utter neglect of Delhi’s life line by allowing untreated sewage to fall directly into the river from eleven major drains and surprisingly constructing buildings along the river that do not face the river but the road! So we have a river but no riverfront and little access to the river. The only access being, surprisingly, the cremation grounds, and smaller ghats that allow access for dumping of the ashes into the river after the bodies have been cremated- an access only for death.
One can only attempt to see the river Yamuna from the barricaded flyovers that cross the river, let alone touch it.
And almost all of this has happened after we gained our independence! As the river did flow right next to Kashmere Gate up until 1857, the first revolt of independence, and was very visible from this northern gate of the walled city of Delhi and was an integral part of the ethos of the city.This is where I attempted a monument to it as part of the 48C, PUBLIC-ART-ECOLOGY project.
An attempt to make people aware of the river that flows next to them; a consciousness I am sure is there hidden under the layers of concrete that the town planners keep on adding to the city.
The site at Kashmere Gate is the northern portal of the walled city of Delhi; a historical site and protected monument associated with the 1857 uprising against the British. The Metro station here is perhaps Delhi’s busiest and is adjacent to the Inter–State–Bus-Terminal that is intensely crowded at all hours. The site chosen was an enclosed site under the ARCHEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA (ASI) but which was in regular use by people 15-20 years ago as one entry gate to the walled city of Delhi.
The Metro station’s underground line featured light boxes of photographs of the Yamuna taken by me within the geographical area of Delhi, not the conventional images of polluted water and degraded environs, but tangential representations that nudge viewers to question their established notions of the river with the question –
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE YAMUNA?
HAVE YOU EVER TOUCHED THE YAMUNA?
The images built abstract narratives that lead the viewers to Kashmere Gate ‘Chabeel’
A ‘Chabeel’ being a temporary site set up for the distribution of free water, lassi, and sometimes food as well, to all who stop by. Usually set up in summers on auspicious days to show family or community largess to earn personal/community ‘good’ and to connect communities by the people of northwest India; but has now been exclusively taken over by the Sikhs/Punjabis for almost all their saints birth anniversaries
The ‘Chabeel’ was constructed in the form of the water can; tilted, as if coming out of the archaeological site; a 1 litre can that would usually be brought back home full of holy water either from the river Ganges or the river Yamuna from ancient temple towns along rivers’ banks. The ‘Chabeel’ was placed at the entrance of the ‘Kashmere Gate’ as a reminder to the River Yamuna that flowed just outside the gates and to other various wells and baolis (step wells) of Delhi, which have long been forgotten. It was covered with square white tiles invoking the spaces of open public bathrooms and toilets around the city of Delhi, which are some of the filthiest in the world.
For the duration of project free drinking water was given out to all who came in re-cycled paper cups and with it they were given a sticker–
‘HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE YAMUNA?
HAVE YOU EVER TOUCHED THE YAMUNA?’
(Which they could choose to put on their cars, scooters or public transport they used, spreading the questions right through the city.)
They were immediately able to connect to the photographs they had seen at the Metro platforms and other similar signs put up on the traffic railings and the ISBT buildings around the gate.
The cups of water were collected back, and if some of the people left any ‘waste’ (‘Jhooth’ -waste, stained left over’s in Hindi; a term that cannot really be translated into English), to it was added a mixer of sand from the river Yamuna and cement, as if to solidify the ‘remains’ of the person’s visit to my site with the ‘Jhooth’ that he/she left behind.
Their cups with ‘Jhooth’ were laid out inside the structure forming a kind of envelope of peoples’ ‘Jhooth’ around me. With each day the ‘Jhooth’ increased and more the people came to know about it, the more they wanted to leave some part of themselves behind (!) adding to the monument!A monument to be made from what people had ‘left behind’, -waste , stained left over’s-Jhooth.
The site was further transferred after sun down with a projection onto the white tiled surface of photographs of the Yamuna taken at various points along the river starting from the village Palla, where the river geographically enters Delhi to its exit at Okhla barrage, where the river leaves Delhi and enters the neighboring states of Uttar Pradesh on its run to Allahabad to meet the river Ganges.
The spillover of the projection onto the monument behind it created spectacular views for the public who stopped and who spent quite some time at the site, having connected with the work to have another drink of water from the ‘Chabeel’! Making the dead ASI site alive again!
The ‘Monument’ to the River Yamuna, which will be using the ‘jhooth’ of the people, is ongoing at my studio.
ATUL BHALLA 2009
This project is supported by the Goethe Institute, New Delhi and the German Technical Cooperation( GTZ), New Delhi.
Pooja Sood, Artistic Director /Curator