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March '07

art gallery
New Delhi

Curated by
Johny ML


  • 'piaos' - 8
  • 'piaos' - 8
  • 'piaos' - 8
  • Sap 36x24x18inches [glass, Yamuna Sand,cement, Peepal Wood, Yamuna Water ,tap Water
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About Use and Abuse of Water

Painter turned conceptual artist Atul Bhalla would be participating in the Khoj Residency Program on Water during the month of January, 2007. He speaks to JohnyML about his concerns about water, conceptual practices and previous projects. Excerpts:

JohnyML: Atul, when did you start working on Water Politics?

 Atul Bhalla: I have not consciously dealt with water politics but with water. The attempts I have made to understand water as a substance have led to works which examine water at various levels which may include water politics. Politics then becomes one of the layers that the work deals with.
JML: How did you get attracted towards the global water politics and how did you conceptualize your works?

AB: I would again like to specify that I am not an overtly political artist but am trying to deal with an essential substance we all use and abuse. Politics of the work is just another way of understanding my works.

JML:  Did you align with the issues related to the Yamuna river in particular or your concerns are general in nature?

AB: My concerns have been general in nature but I do like to give indicators which point towards the material and method used for making the works, like I do specify that I use Yamuna sand, or river water for my sculptural and installation pieces.

JML: You used to paint a lot and used to get excited by the conceptual works in mid 90s. However you took a lot of time to embark yourself on a conceptual journey. How did it happen and how did you go about it?

AB: My last show which dealt with, if I am allowed to say so, just bare paintings, was in 2000 and then I did not show for almost 5 years. It was during this very tough period of introspection that I looked at what I was doing and have since then made attempts at other media and ideas. The work that I now do is conceptual and the medium is part of the overall concept of the work and not outside of it.

JML: Your works on and with water have created a lot of interest amongst the art loving public. Could you please talk more about them?

AB: I am not very good at talking about my works in general but am more comfortable answering specific questions. I think the public has liked my attempts at understanding,
an essential substance, which we now treat only as a commodity.

JML: Atul, in the video plus performance work you are seen slaughtering a goat. How does it go with your other projects?

AB: Working on a lens based project proposed by Gigi Scaria on the old walled city of Delhi called ‘DILLI  DUR AST’, I had conceived a few works which would examine, to quote from the concept note-

‘…a city within a city reveals thousands of cities inside. The idea is to intervene or understand the space; the city we live in more closely with expanded artistic equipments. In this process we might even rethink and question the possibilities of our common practices to produce a work of art. The intention is to interact among the people around in order to understand certain social norms and ways of life which contribute to contemporary culture to be alive….’

 ‘…it includes certain key words such as feudalism, migration, modernization/industrialization, colonialism etc,…’

Since I have been working on water as a concept for some time now, I conceived two works which allowed me to further pursue the concept within my own practice and to expand it with an attempt at a different medium.

One work titled ‘Mashk’ had me examine and intervene into a community of Qureshis, traditional butchers; it also examined the notion of providing free water from a traditional leather water carrier-mashk, which is made of a halal goat.

 I had wanted to get a mashk made which would be totally my own; that meant the leather carrier had to be some where -of me and from me. I could think of no other way than to buy a goat myself and attempt its slaughter in the traditional manner with the guidance of a Qureshi, which turned out to a difficult task as only one family from the about 300 families staying in old Delhi agreed to teach me but with an assurance of anonymity.

 A mashk is a traditional water carrier made of leather, usually of goat, which is always ‘halal’ [traditional Islamic way of slaughtering animals for meat]. So starting with the first step I bought a goat from the wholesale animal market after spending four days there watching live animals come in and meat come out which helped me formulate the work. I attempted to ‘halal’ it myself under the guidance of a reluctant Qureshi, who warned me that if I halaled the goat he would not touch it nor skin it as that would be absolutely against his religion.
The attempt turned into a reality; I did halal the goat. The goat was skinned by a Hindu butcher and the hide used to get the mashk made. The whole process resulted into a five minute video which fore grounded my experientiality, 22 color prints [12x18in] foregrounding the act, the resultant installation had the mashk and the knife as exhibits as well.

The person who carries the mashk and offers drinking water is called a ‘Bhishti’ which also means life giver, as ‘Bahisht’ means life in Urdu. So to give life [here read water] one had to, in a way take a life.

So the work is a definite part of my current pursuits in art.

JML: In the Dilli Dur Ast project you again worked on the Piaos in Delhi. Could you please explain a little bit about the Piao Project?

AB: The other work  involved mapping the ‘piaus’ the traditional free drinking water sites of old Delhi. The works shot frontally shows the garish tiles, pan stains, spit, accumulated dirt, and the way we actually treat free things in life –with no respect.

JML: What are you going to do in the forthcoming Khoj International Residency program with Ravi Agarwal?

AB: There are two or three ideas for projects which I had conceptualized around the river Yamuna , I shall be attempting to formalize those ideas. A lot depends on the availability of space and location.

JML:  What are your future projects?
AB: I am currently working on them and you will be able to see them at my solo show at Anant Art Gallery in the month of March.

JML: Won't you paint again?

AB: I conceptualize the medium of the work according to the demands of the work. It is irrelevant to ask me if I will paint again.


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