Yamuna Walk

Artist: Atul Bhalla
Location: Yamuna River, New Delhi, India

Year of completion: 2007
Researcher: Leon Tan

The Yamuna River takes its name from the Hindu Goddess Yamuna, daughter of the Sun God Surya and sister of the God of Death Yama. It flows through the city of Delhi and is the largest tributary river of India’s sacred Ganges. Legend has it that bathing in the Yamuna wards off death, or frees one from its torments. Ironically, it is the Yamuna itself that struggles for life today as it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, receiving millions of liters of raw sewage per day along with countless liters of toxic chemical effluents from industrial and commercial activities. Perhaps because of its filthiness, the Yamuna barely exists in the awareness of Delhi’s millions of inhabitants, many of whom have never ever seen the river. In Delhi’s Mughal and British colonial periods, buildings used to be constructed with views of the Yamuna. Post-independence however, buildings adjacent to the river would inevitably be constructed facing away from it. One might say that a city had turned its back to its major waterway.

The significance of Atul Bhalla’s performative intervention Yamuna Walk (Through 22kms) is best appreciated against this backdrop. Invited to participate in KHOJ International Artists’ Association’s 2007 Eco+Art Residency, Bhalla conceived of the Yamuna Walk as a means of engaging residents of Delhi with the neglected river, documenting its conditions, and deepening his own relationship with both the city and river. Through 22kms refers to the urban stretch of the Yamuna through Delhi, though the artist in fact walked a total of 56kms. The journey proceeded from Palla village, the Yamuna’s point of entry into Delhi, through to Okhla Barrage, and out from the city into Uttar Pradesh. Where it was impossible to walk alongside the river, Bhalla resorted to taking a boat. The project began with a picnic at Jagatpur village, along the banks of the river. The site was chosen as one less littered than other parts of the river, and the event of a picnic, for the reason that “no one ever picnics on the river in Delhi.” Picnickers came expecting a conventional “performance,” and instead were treated to refreshments and a boat ride.

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The entire Yamuna walk took Bhalla 4 days to complete, and involved extensive engagement with local communities living along the river, including fishermen, farmers and villagers washing their clothes and planting watermelons. Initially, some of the public responses were a little apprehensive due to the presence of Bhalla’s camera. Locals appeared to wonder, What have we done wrong? However, as the artist persisted in his walking, and spent time conversing with those he encountered, apprehension gave way to curiosity, with many expressing a great deal of interest in his activities. Apart from photographing the Yamuna and the communities alongside it, Bhalla also kept a written diary, recording the journey with a sparse arrangement of text, a sort of documentary-poetry. The entry for 23 January (11:30am) for example, contains fragments such as “palla-northern border-delhi?-sand-and sand-space-mine-space-flow…”

Yamuna Walk concluded with a sculptural installation of toilet/sanitary products arranged in spiral formation on the riverbank. Bhalla’s extensive documentation was presented at the KHOJ studios in the form of a photo narrative, together with an overflowing toilet rigged with a video camera feeding expressions of disgust on the faces of visitors to the toilet through to a projector located just outside. While many of the photographs provide ample evidence of the pollution of the Yamuna, several have been described as “picturesque.” The picturesque images relay the artist’s sense that perhaps all is not entirely lost, that the Yamuna is not altogether dead, and that with sufficient will, Delhi residents might begin to think differently about the river such that it regains a foothold in the consciousness and priority of a city.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency