One of the world’s most polluted rivers, the Yamuna, is the source for new work by the Indian artist Vibha Galhotra.The Yamuna is a sacred river that shows up in many Indian myths. According to Hindu scriptures, seven sages brought the river goddess down from the heavens. Both the Yamunotri glacier where the river begins its flow and Allahabad, where it merges with the river Ganga (or Ganges), are considered holy places, and visited by thousands of pilgrims every year.
One day in July 2014, the Delhi-based artist Vibha Galhotra started collecting water from the river Yamuna, which flows through the city. Every day for a year, she gathered a few ounces of the murky liquid and stored it in a small bottle with a cork stopper.
The 365 bottles of yellow water—some of the deadliest water found in India—sit on the floor at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, part of Galhotra’s solo show, Absur-Pity-City-Dity. It’s a complicated journal of a river and an artist and the city they belong to.
Bringing rich alluvial soils from the Himalayan Mountains, the Yamuna has fed the north Indian plains since the Paleolithic era. Over centuries of empire-building, the river remained the eastern border of Delhi, the line that separated the capital from the provinces. But in contemporary India, with development in full swing, flyovers connect the older sections of Delhi with the newly built urban extensions across the river.
Today the Yamuna shows up in a different kind of story—about the most polluted rivers of the world. It shares this dubious honor with rivers like the Mississippi and the Yangtze, which have supported industrialization on their shores and have been rewarded with toxicity. More than half of the waste that Delhi generates—including raw sewage, industrial effluents, and animal carcasses—gets dumped into the Yamuna. While the river is relatively healthy in its Himalayan segment, it turns into an open sewer by the time it leaves Delhi.
For Galhotra, the pollution, dirt, and sewage are literally material. She has used river sediment as ink, creating abstract paintings with the dark sludge.
In an interview in the zine that accompanies the show, she writes about watching a couple bathe in the dirty river as they perform rites for their ancestors. She is filled with “anger at their superficial faith”—because, ironically, many of the rituals involved in worshipping the river contribute to its pollution.
What emerges from her own tactile engagement with the unholiness of the river is the other river, the mythical goddess that pilgrims visit, who gives generously of herself to the land she flows through.
One part of the show (which closes on December 5) is Manthan, a video that Galhotra directed; it’s a retelling of an Indian myth in which gods and demons churned the ocean together to find the nectar of life. Manthan starts with images of an unspoiled river, in which trees seem to grow out of the mirroring waters. This is the Yamuna before it reaches Delhi. Then we see tributaries of sewage emptying into the river.
Four men appear on rafts. They unfurl a pristine white sheet and, holding its four corners, submerge it in the river. When the fabric returns to the surface, it is gleaming with filth.
The men braid the fabric into a snake-like coil. (In the original myth, the gods and demons persuade the snake god to be their rope.) They then slowly squeeze the water out, a greasy black fluid that cannot really be called water.
The Delhi government has been working to clean the river for two decades, but the ambitious Yamuna Action Plan, funded by loans from Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, has very little to show in terms of results. The city’s sewage treatment infrastructure is inadequate, and the rapid pace of industrialization over the last decade has not helped.
That didn’t stop Delhi’s Water Minister, Kapil Mishra, from promising in September to bathe in a clean Yamuna three years from now.
On display at the gallery, suspended in resin like an archeological artifact, is the filth-soaked coil of fabric from the video. It seems to mock the hope that the river can be restored in a mere three years. Clean, safe water seems all too elusive—perhaps that was the true nectar of life in the old myth.