Artist and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal finds a metaphor in Yamuna as he raises some existential concerns, writes Shailaja Tripathi

Long before the polluted Yamuna became a commonplace subject discussed in public and private forums with intensity, there were a few who were working towards the cause quietly. Artist and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal was one of them. Photographing the river since the ‘90s, even Ravi isn’t sure about the number of visits he has made to the river but he is certain that he has covered the entire length. “I don’t think I know it yet but yes I can say I have seen a lot of it,” he says gazing at the expanse of the river visible at Golden Jubilee Park, near old Yamuna Bridge. This is the same site, Ravi had mounted a spectacular public art festival, “The Yamuna-Elbe Project” in 2011, with the idea of creating ecological rivers in cities and have people experience the rivers.A whole range of activities — performances, boat rides, installations, walks, discussions — took place on this particular point, Ravi describes as one of the most accessible entries to Yamuna in the city. Even if the government didn’t follow it up with what Ravi had desired, he is happy that at least with the help of DTC buses — it ran buses from several places in the city to fetch people to the site — the festival drew people to come and see the river. “We got over 100 schools and there were so many kids who had never seen the river. They in fact found the river beautiful. What’s the point of talking about nature in classrooms? I wished the Government had kept the place alive. So many people come to fly kites there on Sundays, so may be something like that could have been done there. We need to activate such spaces,” feels Ravi.

Nature was an important part of Ravi while growing up in Delhi. His earliest memory of the river dates back to the time when he was 12 and saw a white wagtail at a marshland near Indraprastha. He was already into photography by then but at that time people interested his third eye more. Ravi’s first photo-exhibition “Street View” held at AIFACS in 1993 in fact comprised images taken on the street. Gradually, vocabulary expanded and ideas of nature which were entrenched in him took a specific shape. An MBA degree from a business school, a cushy job with an MNC and later his own set-up…Ravi gave up everything to pursue activism and art. On the one hand, he had floated an environmental NGO Toxics Link concerned with the issue of toxics related pollution and on the other, he was busy with his camera. “Camera shaped my interest in landscapes. It shaped my life. I always saw things very visually. The two things — activism and photography weren’t separate. One thing led to another and I always felt one could do both simultaneously and there was a need for me to do so. With Toxics Link I was intervening as a researcher and an engineer whereas with my photographic work I was talking about the aesthetics.”

“Alien Waters” was his first work directly related to the river. A series of poignant photographs and a photo textbook Immersions. Emergence was born out of his numerous visits to Yamuna. It was about his own relationship with nature and ecology. “Alien Waters had images of junk at the river, the filth and the dirt. From its degraded landscape, I moved on to exploring it as a sustainable fertile being in my next project ‘Have you seen the flowers on the river?’”

Ravi says the river had become a metaphor for him, a fundamental part of life and he was exploring it from different perspectives. For “Have you seen the flowers on the river?”, an eco-residency, he produced six photographs and video works. He traced the journey of the marigold flowers sown on the river bed, a practice that is the livelihood for many local communities. “I looked at it as a beautiful river providing livelihood to so many but with land being taken away for construction, their livelihood got affected. The idea was, when we construct a land, we talk in terms of capital but why do we forget about its fertility aspect. What about sustainability?” He urges people to go and explore the river. “If you go beyond Kalindi Kunj, you still find flower fields on the river bank. And despite all the dirt, it is beautiful. One may not be able to access Yamuna so closely in the city but between Palla and Wazirabad, where it runs for almost 40 kms, you can access it anywhere. The river is blue there.”

It hurts the artist to see how the river is ignored as a whole ecology but at the same time he is happy that people are at least reacting to it. “All these different movements have little inroads into it but what is more important is that people are talking about it.” Ravi’s Toxics Link is also part of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a mission committed to save Yamuna.

The river for him is not just ecological but are metaphorical and political spaces as well.

“It has multiple topographies. As an artist I enter the space through the aesthetics,” explains Ravi, one of the earliest Indian artists to be on a platform such as Documenta in Germany.

In his solo “Flux” at Gallery Espace in 2010, Ravi continued with the exploration of changing cities and its altering landscapes. Industrial machines, flyovers, sewage ponds, forest spaces, dried up river beds, labour, were the subjects of his interest as he moved between self and the world.

Explore Yamuna

  • The artist recommends different points in the city and nearby areas in order to explore Yamuna.
  • Yamuna Bazaar, opposite Red Fort, is a very interesting space, according to Ravi.
  • Explore it at any point between Palla and Wazirabad. The 40 km long stretch gives one enough opportunities to experience the river.
  • Going beyond Kalindi Kunj, he says, people can still find flower fields.
  • On Sundays, head to the DDA Golden Jubilee Park and enjoy kite flying there. It is one of the most accessible entries into Yamuna.

At Sharjah Biennale

Invited to exhibit his work at the ongoing Sharjah Biennale, Ravi Agarwal is showcasing “The Sewage Pond’s Memoir 2011”, a colour video projection with sound, a photographic diptych and photographic prints (picture on left).

This film, shot over a period of over a year and a half, forms part of an engagement with urban ecology. “Sewage”, he says, “is measured in litres and water quality. When sewage does not flow in its desired course, it overflows into the forest, which becomes a marker of a dysfunctional system rather than of belonging. The ancient Delhi Ridge Forest is at the tail end of a 1.5 billion year-old mountain chain traversing the western coast of the country. In fact, its ecological security in terms of water and green cover it provides was one reason why the city of Delhi’s many incarnations were located here repeatedly for over a thousand years. However, today, it has taken years of citizens’ action to keep it from being totally destroyed and urbanised, and it is now in parts legally protected. However, it is constantly being degraded as the ecologically strained city explodes and encroaches upon it, through dumping sewage, garbage and illegal constructions.”