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Atul Bhalla

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1964, New Delhi
Lives and works in New Delhi

Atul Bhalla is a conceptual artist known for his decade long fascination with water and its properties. He is concerned with the impact of urbanisation and the various environmental and ethical concerns brought forth by people’s misuse of water. Using multiple mediums, especially performance and photography, Bhalla uses himself as a subject in his works, in order to reach out to the viewer on an intimate level.


Masters in Fine Arts School of Art, Northern Illinois University, U.S.A.

Bachelor in Fine Arts College of Art, New Delhi, Delhi University


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His artistic practice explores the various cultural facets of water

For the past decade, Atul Bhalla’s art has been single-mindedly focused on exploring the relationship between water and its urban environments. Diving deep into the historical, religious, political and spiritual importance of water with reference to the masses and their consumption constitutes the basis of a majority of Bhalla’s work.

His I Was Not Waving, but Drowning, 2005, uses photographs to display Bhalla’s take on Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem Not Waving But Drowning. Performed in 2005, the work is a series of 14 digital pigment photographs depicting the artist’s gradual descent into the Yamuna, non-verbally commenting on the spiritual practice of bathing in its holy waters, and the reality of environmental degradation which has made the water toxic. The photographs were taken in Lagatpuri near New Delhi, where the Yamuna is the most polluted and dangerous to swim in.

Atul Bhalla, I Was Not Waving But Drowning II (detail), 2005.

He deploys various mediums in his exploration of water

The artist uses a huge variety of mediums like sculpture, painting, installation, video, photography and performance to show the connection between water bodies and their surrounding urban communities. In his work 156 Litres, 2007, Bhalla made casts of nine 20 litre Bisleri bottles and filled it with sand, cement and gravel. His work is self-explanatory even if the viewer is unfamiliar with the context.

Another installation Beauty, 2008, comprises of six water tanks spread out in the space of the gallery. One of these is an aquarium raised on a stand in the center of the gallery with several objects submerged in clear water. A toilet bowl cast in cement and a smaller glass tank containing a cement cast of its plumbing can be seen at the bottom of the tank. Here Bhalla points to the fact that these objects, whose function it is to store and transport water, are now themselves submerged in it. The word “revolt” is etched in large, transparent, bold letters on the outer face of the aquarium, and the word “beauty” is also found on the inner tank. Both words refer to the Hindu myth in which Prince Yudhisthira’s wisdom is tested by a yaksha, or demon. Yudhisthira’s response to the yaksha’s challenge of “why do men revolt?” is “to find beauty, either in life or in death,” and he is rewarded with a drink from a lake.

Despite his versatility. his is most famous for his photo-series which create a narrative about water that is poetic, enigmatic, and disturbing in turns.

Atul Bhalla, 156 Litres, 2007, direct casts of 9-20 litre jars of Bisleri (mineral water), Yamuna sand, cement and gravel, dimensions variable.

Installation view of Atul Bhalla’s “…within/without…”, Aicon Gallery, London, 2008. Courtesy Aicon Gallery, London/New York.

The mythological and the literary create new meanings in his works

“I leave the viewer with a question, so that the works live on within them”, says Bhalla. In this photo performance called What Will be My Defeat along the course of River Elbe from Hamburg to the North Sea, he explores questions a river might pose to the people living around it.

The context for this performance piece comes from an episode from the Indian epic Mahabharata, in which the Pandavas, during their last year in exile reach a body of water and want to drink. But a voice from the water stops them and asks them to “Answer my questions before you drink”. The four younger princes do not heed the warning and drink, which results in their consequent deaths. The eldest prince Yudhistra says, “Examine me!” Then come a series of 54 questions all of which the prince answers. Bhalla lists some of them separately from Jean Claude Carrier’s script for Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in this series.

Twelve banners, approximately 118 inches tall and 150 inches wide, clicked by Helge Mundt were made and put up outside the barge Caesar in the Harbour City, Hamburg from September to October 2011.

A photo performance with photographs by Helge Mundt, 2011, twelve banners, 118 x 150” (approx.) each.

Style of art is subtle yet impactful in its message to the viewers

While a lot of his works involve tough environmental concerns regarding the state of water pollution and its irreversible effects, Bhalla’s method of expression is ideally historical and poetic at the same time. In other words, his focus is charged with old personal connections, or growing concerns that are of value to him, yet they are not overtly political in nature. By refraining from politicising his artworks, Bhalla maintains an aesthetic balance that drives home the point to viewers more effectively than others who take a head-on approach.

He is interested in the ethical concerns of the new generation and his environmental works can be considered as the exploration of the conscience of this generation. 

Atul Bhalla, Yamuna Evening-II, 2007, digital print on archival paper, 31.5 x 44”, number two from an edition of three.

His performances are deeply personal with collective undertones

Bhalla is a conceptual artist concerned with environmental issues especially that of water pollution. His works are individualistic but contain collective meaning. Even though he works with various mediums, he is most prolific as a photographer. His photo-series narrate stories regarding the ethical concerns of the new generation that links them to a mythological, cultural, religious, or spiritual past.

One element of his works that is not extensively explored is the personal nature of his performance. While his performances are not confessional in nature as he is an effacing participant in these performances. In I was Not Waving but Drowning, his eyes do not meet the viewer but remain hooded. In his video performance, Mashk, 2006, he slaughters a goat with the butcher’s knife, and all the while the camera focuses on his face and not on the activity or the hands. His engagement in his works is deeply personal which makes them individualistic with collective overtones.

Atul Bhalla, Mashk, 2006, video 5'23", leather Mashk, water, 22 still photographs.