(left) Death, the River and Me consists of 63 photographs that form a single, coherent narrative. In them, Atul Bhalla is seen on the banks of the Yamuna, marking the river’s death by having his head shaved in a mourning ritual practiced throughout India. In these images the camera is not static, and the cameraman clearly moves around the place of the ritual, recording the loss of hair. The changing angles of the camera prevent the photographs from being monotonous, and at the same time break the axis of viewing. This seems to give the viewer free and unhampered access to the event. As a result, the photographs appear to be the documentation of an event that occurred in a specific place and time, rather than a performance enacted especially for the camera.
Every photograph in this series shows Bhalla’s face in a tight close up but he never looks directly into the camera. His solemnity and unobtrusiveness allow us to see beyond him to what he mourns – pollution, decay and the death of the river. Hence, although all that the viewer sees in the photographs is a physical transformation of the artist, he becomes invisible against the magnitude of the issues evoked. Along with the photographs, Bhalla has chosen to preserve the razor used during the ritual enactment, making it a relic object, thus museumizing the performance.
(right) Krishnaraj Chonat’s installations play with materials and textures to create a sense of unease. In other works, he has covered entire furniture ensembles with fake pearls, or fleece, or made cakes out of cracked earth. By calling this work Sunset in the Valley, Chonat suggests that we are about to see a pleasant sight. What is on show however, is a canvas depicting cracked, parched earth, which we should connect with the idea of famine, hunger and despair. However the binoculars provided to view this piece of earth have their lenses occluded with pearls. On looking through them, the viewer would see only whiteness, glossy and out of focus. The work makes an ironic comment on our attempts to ‘look’ versus our willingness to ‘see’.