Photographs by Sreedeep. Intro text by Kamalini Mukherjee
She had a life once. She was the life once. Now she has become a shadowy respite of the environmental battle that has left her rotting, slowly turning to mulch and landfill. Her life was the pride of civilizations. Her tumultuous beauty was the refuge of sages and poets. River Yamuna, on the banks of which Lord Krishna played his flute to the sunset until the women of his village found themselves mesmerized, at his feet. Yamuna, on the banks of which Shah Jahan built Taj Mahal, the monument of love’s eternal testament, and the world still amazes at the glory of that love. Today, urban development has pushed her to the fringes, struggling to survive the inevitable decay. The largest tributary of Ganga, now lies in the despair of a long forgotten lifeline as one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially around Delhi. Once considered the most sacred of all rivers in India, it was also geologically one of the most important rivers of Northern India, now presents the picture of a frothing pool of stagnant toxic waste.
There is a stark contrast of beliefs and practices, in this country. Yamuna River has a history older than its geo-ecological life. It has a religious significance that still drives hundreds of devotees taking dips in its contaminated waters every year. It is still part of the daily prayer to many, as it retains its rights of purity even as excrement and fetid remains are but ordinary items in the river water. Yet, life still teems around the diseased river. Trades still exist, those of washer-men or linen-launderers mostly; a few rickshaw-pullers also call the riverbank home, as well as some settlers who have lived on these ‘camping sites’ for generations. The children play in the midst of decomposition and dirt, the women clean their utensils in the same water, ten meters away from where their community toilet dispenses extra flow of sewage. The filth and putrid air in the area is something that has become a part of their existence.
Incredibly, the contrast exists even in the character of the river as it faces its mortality. Yamuna dies as it reaches the state of Delhi, as it lies followed by a wasteland in the middle of the metropolitan city, buried within the invisible spaces in the city’s pace of life. Forlorn and forsaken, an immense horizon wakes up each morning to the sound of passing traffic, overlooked by the multitude of destination-prone humans. Incredibly, the contrast exists even in the character of the river as it reaches its mortality.
Yamuna may have perished years ago to accommodate Delhi’s teeming émigrés, but the trades of a river have salvaged the hopes of nostalgia and reclamation still attached to its corpse.
All the images one may traverse here are memoirs of beauty and an imagined retrieval only death can be guilty of.
Sreedeep is an independent photographer based in New Delhi with a wide range of visual interests. His works have been published in Sunday Guardian, Himal, Discover India, Better Photography and Outlook Traveller. He has completed his PhD in Sociology in 2011 from JNU. His academic work engages with consumer culture. www.flickr.com/photos/bestofsreedeep