Atul Bhalla (India)
Ek Rupaya Bada Gilass
(One Rupee for a Big Glass of Water)
I grew up drinking water from public places in Delhi and wherever I traveled within India. Walking home from school in the scorching sun and 45°C heat, we used to stop for a drink of cool water at the piau (faucet), where people would offer water in an earthen pot, pouring it from a copper vessel with a spout as they leaned from a window.
The piaus slowly vanished from New Delhi as water started to “sell”! Public piaus in India had been an act of largesse, with householders giving free water to earn religious good. They are essentially found today only in Old Delhi, where water is still given out without regard to caste, religion, or class.
In place of piaus, carts of “Refrigerated Cold Water” started to appear, which advertised water for five, ten, or twenty-five paisa and now two rupees a glass. These carts, like objects from a bygone era, still dot Delhi bus stops and railway stations. The “boys” who run them have made innovations to their products, such as providing fresh lime water with salt as an antidote to sunstroke and also, as we were told, as protection against the germs found within the cart! “If you have to drink, drink it with the lime!”
A whole universe exists around the carts, just like the universes around all waters. I think and believe that at some point we drink or step into the same waters as our ancestors. The amount of fresh water in the world does not change, so somewhere you always step into the same river!
My work has been 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 will drown in it.
How I drench, soak, douse, moisten, quench, dilute, dampen, cleanse, or purify with water.
How I excrete tears, sweat, or urine. How water 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.
Atul Bhalla has explored the physical, historical, spiritual, and political significance of water in the urban environment and to the population of his city, New Delhi, through artworks that incorporate sculpture, painting, installation, video, photography,and performance.
In his project Immersion, Bhalla used sand taken directly from the Yamuna River in northern India to make concrete castsof present-day portable water containers. These casts were then placed in water-filled vitrines to draw a connection between Delhi’s historical source for water and the spiritual absence inherent in the disposable containers. Similarly, in his photographic work Ek Rupaya Bada Gilass (One Rupee For a Big Glass of Water), which takes as its springboard the piaus (water spigots) that were once a public source of drinking water, Bhalla ex amines water as both a symbol and a source of renewal and reexamination.
Bhalla is particularly concerned about the relationship between the Yamuna and the urban communities along it. The Yamuna is one of the largest tributaries of the Ganges River, and tens of millions of people depend on its water for irrigation and municipal/domestic use. Venerated in Hindu mythology as the goddess of life, it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Bhalla earned his B.F.A. from Delhi University and his M.F.A. from the Northern Illinois University School of Art and Design.His work has been presented in international museum exhibitions,including The Other and Me (2014), Sharjah Art Museum, U.A.E; Walk On: From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff—40 Years of Art Walking (2012-2014), a traveling exhibition co-organized by the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art and the University of Sunderland, U.K.; Critical Mass (2013), Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and Paris-Delhi-Bombay (2011), Centre Pompidou, Paris. Recently Bhalla exhibited his work as part of Aesthetic Bind: Floating World (2014), one of five exhibitions celebrating Chemould Gallery’s fifty years in Mumbai.
Bhalla’s site-specific installations include a project on the Elbe in Hamburg and West Heavens, Place-Time-Play: India-China Contemporary Art, a project at two sites in Shanghai. His work was included in the group exhibitions India: Public Places, Private Spaces(2007), the Newark Museum, New Jersey; Watching Me Watching India: New Photography from India (2006), Fotographie Forum,Frankfurt; and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum Triennale.
His solo shows include On the Edge (2011) and Ya Ki Kuch aur(2014), both at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi; Water Works (2011), Grossman Gallery, Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania; and I Was Not Waving But Drowning-II (2010), Harvard Art Museums,Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He has recently published the following books on his performative works: Yamuna Walk (Seattle: sepiaEYE with University of Washington Press, 2011) and What Will Be My Defeat? (Hamburg: Galerie für Landschaftskunst, 2012). An extensive analysis of his work can be found in You always step into the same river (New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery Publications, 2014).
Bhalla lives and works in New Delhi.