Over the last three decades, Sheba Chhachhi has formed a practice that traverses the fields of documentary filmmaking, women’s rights activism and installation art. With an inclination for the unseen and unspoken worlds of women—from female ascetics to the Yamuna goddess, incarnate in the Yamuna River—Chhachhi’s practice gives voice and bears witness to both everyday atrocities and mythological tales. On a foggy December day, ArtAsiaPacific caught up with the 2011 Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize recipient for a chat in her Delhi studio.
Can you tell us about your journey from early photographic work, such as “Ganga’s Daughters” (1992–2004), to your first installations in the 1990s?
After ten years of documenting the women’s movement I began to have questions about the lie of objectivity (in the Western documentary canon) and the politics of representation. First, I took images of women struggling to change their condition, a kind of corrective to the mass media. But over ten years I created a new stereotype: the militant woman. I landed at a demonstration one morning and found a bevy of press photographers getting women to pose like my photographs! So I started a more collaborative process with staged portraits such as Seven Lives in a Dream (1998). It shifted my mode of practice, this inter-subjectivity where the subject and photographer create together. In a way, that was my movement towards “art.” “Ganga’s Daughters” were “staged” in a different way; the woman ascetic is, anyway, a performative identity, and also, they actively posed for the photographs. The first installation I made used two portraits from “Ganga’s Daughters” combined with sculpture and found texts.
Along with feminist issues, another ongoing engagement of yours has been with the impact of urban transformation. How has this manifested itself in your work?
The first expression [of this] was with Neelkanth – Poison/Nectar (2000–02). In 2000, the air in Delhi was incredibly toxic; every time I left the city and returned this refrain would enter my head, “poison city, poison city.” Poison naturally leads you to two other things—medicine and nectar. I read about alchemy, homeopathy, the judicious use of poison being medicinal and the injudicious use of medicine becoming poisonous. Following the root into mythology, I came across the story of Neelkanth, in which the demons and the gods work together to extract the elixir of immortality, amrit. They churn the ocean and at first wondrous things appear—jewels, the cow of plenty. They continue to churn and the ocean begins to heave, spit and boil, eventually bursting into flames. They’re left with this black mass, a poison which threatens to destroy the earth. Shiva, moved by compassion for the world, opens his mouth and takes it into his throat, becoming Neelkanth. For me, the metaphor of greed by striving for immortality, and a poison that you have to continuously struggle with, was perfect.
I believe this imagery of “black water” and “water on fire” also ties in with your work on the Yamuna River?
I’ve been making works about the Yamuna since 2005. All of my work has been building up to the recovery of cultural memory and the eco-philosophy I feel lies embedded within these narratives, as a path to finding some way through this extreme [ecological] situation. But this time, getting asphyxiated by the methane coming off the Yamuna, I went into a state of great despair. I found my way out by developing a futuristic work called Black Waters Will Burn (2011). You have to walk across this sacred text [the Yamunashtak hymn] describing the river as a beautiful, sensual woman, and then you see it in actuality, a wounded female form. For me, the hymn was a device to look at the strange disconnect between worshipping the goddess and complete disregard for the river. At dusk, a projection shows a reflection of the water, bursting into flames. The work is meant to confront people—because for me the death of the river is also the death of the feminine.
Water Diviner (2008) looks at alternative associations with water. As one of your most affirmative works, can you tell us how it came about?
At the start of [the public art project] “48° Celsius,” I happened upon this building with a plaque outside saying “Swimming Pool.” I looked up and it said “Delhi Public Library”! Tucked into a doorway was this colonial, lion’s-head fountain, choked with newspaper, cobwebs and dust—and a basement, which used to be a swimming pool, full of broken chairs, rotting mattresses and books. I felt this was where I had to work; everything just coalesced. I got the fountain going again but I ran black water in it. The space was full of intense blue light, and once you entered, you were immediately transformed; you were blue. You came down into an enormous chamber, with books rising around you and encountered light boxes in the shape of books, carrying classic images of the riverine culture—miniature paintings mostly drawn from the Krishna stories—in an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the area’s present condition. Along the central “gutter” a light box showed the map of Shahjahanabad and that the street above you was once a water canal. The sound of running water moved through the whole space. And then you come from this black water, to very pure blue water and this image of an elephant. For me, the elephant was trying to bring people back to that central memory, of the pleasure of water, and of course it is a metaphor for cultural memory. I think this remains for me my favorite work.