Yearning for the Yamuna: Atul Bhalla’s Representations of Water as a Vessel for Life

By Rhea Swain, Curatorial Intern

Fifteen photographs are combined into a five-by-three grid conveying a narrative sequence read left to right. Four people are silhouetted against the soft golden-yellow background of a river bathed in early morning light. The figures stand in shallow water, bending to reach into it then gathering to examine their haul. Their reflections appear on the calm surface of the river.
Yamuna Morning IV, Atul Bhalla (b. 1964, India), 2007, Inkjet print on archival Hahnemüle paper, Gift of Drs. Umesh and Sunanda Gaur, Courtesy of the Artist and sepiaEYE, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Arthur M. Sackler Collection, S2019.6.6
Twenty photographs are arranged in a five-by-four grid. Each image depicts one or more faucets belonging to different public drinking fountains. The fountains appear in diverse locations against colorfully tiled or painted walls, some with signs, posters, or religious icons. Both the fountains and their surroundings are dilapidated, showing rust, dirt, and signs of disrepair.
Piaus I, Atul Bhalla (b. 1964, India), 2006, Inkjet prints on archival Hahnemüle paper, Gift of Drs. Umesh and Sunanda Gaur, Courtesy of the Artist and sepiaEYE, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Arthur M. Sackler Collection, S2019.6.7.1–20
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Born in 1964 in New Delhi, Atul Bhalla is a contemporary photographer and visual artist whose art centers around the multivalent significance of water in the urban environment. He received his BFA from Delhi University in 1986 and his MFA from Northern Illinois University in 1990. Many of Bhalla’s artistic explorations of water are localized along the banks of the Yamuna, a life-sustaining river in India that also happens to be one of the most polluted bodies of water on the planet. Bhalla currently lives and works in the capital city of New Delhi and has made the city and its river his muses.

The Yamuna is the most important and sacrosanct tributary of the Ganges River. It is named after the goddess Yamuna, who is worshipped by millions of Hindus who bathe in the river or drink its water to cleanse themselves. In his work, Bhalla immerses himself in the social, cultural, economic, and political symbolism associated with water. The photograph series Piaus-I (2006) and Yamuna Morning IV (2007) represent contrasting approaches to the artist’s examination of Delhi’s landscape.

Piaus-I is a twenty-part photographic series documenting twenty public drinking fountains, or piaus, across Old Delhi. At this early point in his career, Bhalla also extensively observed other vessels used to contain water for dispersal and consumption, such as handpumps, popular jugs, and municipal taps. Now derelict and dilapidated, piaus are mostly found in low-income areas and communal spaces serving religious and business communities. The neglected infrastructure depicted in this series is a result not only of age but also of rapid environmental degradation in the form of simultaneous air and water pollution.

The Yamuna supplies the piaus with free drinking water, but the holy river is wrought with untreated industrial chemicals and sewage, making the quality of the water questionable. Wealthier and newly developed neighborhoods do not face the same anxieties about water quality, perpetuating a vicious cycle of deep-seated socioeconomic inequalities in India.

In Bhalla’s series, the charming and colorful city streets feature the likes of blue-and-white checkered tiles, green and orange faucets, and pink and red walls, but every picture is tainted by markers of age and apathy, rust and grime. The artist zooms in and out of different locales and shows Delhi’s surrounding idiosyncrasies amongst corroded pipes, plastic buckets, and leaky spouts. He watchfully focuses his lens on the intimate details of each tap or draws our attention to hyper-saturated posters of Hindu deities and Sikh gurus peeling off the dampened and sticky surfaces of Old Delhi.

One red wall, likely located at a Hindu temple or mandir, indicates the word “Piau” in bold script under a right-facing clockwise swastika, a marker of prosperity in Hinduism. Another neon yellow sign in scrawled red Hindi letters reads: “Drinking water; washing feet and spreading dirt is not allowed.” Public taps are available for washing feet before entering places of worship, but this sign emphasizes that the piau is a sacred space for drinking water. The abuse of the river by both residents and industries combined with the relative inaction of the government makes such signs of caution and Bhalla’s series even more pertinent in the twenty-first century. The artist challenges his audience to think critically about the urgent implications of the annual water crises his country faces. Bhalla’s acute awareness of temporality is reflected in this series, with each of the twenty fountains representing the effects of the Yamuna’s decay on the populations it serves.

In Yamuna Morning IV (2007), Bhalla deals differently with the notion of a fleeting natural resource and documents one of his many walks along the river. His practice is highly involved and active, demanding deep spiritual connection and physical interaction with the terrains he explores. In these fifteen still photographs, the landscape is an endless sepia sky, illuminated by cinematic sunlight at dawn.

In this series, Bhalla’s subjects are a group of people collecting coins from the riverbanks, which have been auspiciously tossed in the Yamuna as part of a festival the day before. The offerings of devotees take on new meaning as they become part of a reversal of ritual, turning into objects of fascination for keen children. Accompanied by a guardian, the young children huddled together add a sense of youthful mischief to an otherwise serene collection of moments. Each of the figures is a silhouette reflected and rippled in the still waters below, hunched over in their hunt for little treasures. The perspective from which these images are shot is intimate, as though the camera is in the hands of a fellow wader.

The fourth and final part of Bhalla’s 2007 Yamuna Morning series reads and shifts like a film storyboard. The series begins with the group wading through the Yamuna, a bird just flying out of the photographer’s frame, and faint washes of foliage visible in the distance. The middle frames chronicle hands diving into the water to look for tiny steel and nickel rupee coins, with the lens even wandering downward once to appreciate the likenesses mirrored in the water below. The final frame shows the kids congregating to exhibit their findings to one another, while their chaperone remains determinedly bent over to fetch more coins. Rather than painting a bleak picture of the politics of water in India today, in Yamuna Morning IV, Bhalla shows the river in a hopeful and giving light.

Both series—Piaus-I and Yamuna Morning IV —are essential to understanding Bhalla’s identity as an artist, activist, and flaneur. Whether he is roaming the narrow alleyways of the city or observing a quiet morning on the riverbank, Bhalla consistently reorients his lens to analyze water from a diversity of viewpoints. These images lend insight into how the river Yamuna is the revered and beating heart of Bhalla’s home city and into the ways in which it serves its people in practical, necessary, and recreational ways. Despite Delhi’s reliance on and indebtedness to the river, toxicity and greed continue to bleed into the banks and taint this pristine source of life. And yet Bhalla never loses sight of the Yamuna as the core of his humanity and artistry.