Looking for Dvaipayana

Atul Bhalla

In Sanskrit, Dvaipayana literally means “that which is surrounded by water”.

According to the sacred texts called Puranas, the sage Parashar reaches Kalindi, as the Yamuna river is called in North India, and wishes to cross it. Finding there a fisherman’s boat, Parashar asks Satyavati, the fisherman's daughter, to ferry him across the river. She agrees. While on the boat, the sage cannot take his eyes off the young woman and asks if he can make love to her. Again, she agrees and they conceive a child on the boat. Later, a male child is born on an island on the Yamuna and is named Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa - ‘the dark one from the island’. Ved Vyasa, as he comes to be known, is believed to have compiled the four Vedas and the Mahabharata epic.

Dvaipayana also features as a lake in the last episode of the Great War in the Mahabharata. The instigator of the war, King Duryodhana, takes refuge in this lake, which in turn, covers him in ice. This eases the King’s fatigue and sense of loss and wrongdoing. The epic narrates that he can emerge from Dvaipayana only by his own volition; no one can force him from the icy waters.

This correspondence of names suggests that this lake within which King Duryodhana hides is the creator/author/artist himself. Thus, Dvaipayana becomes the mythical lake from which we derive ourselves.

Looking for lost water - old wells. stepwells, old water bodies covered over to make way for roads or for the ease of traffic - I perform at locations named after or for water within my home city of Delhi. Some are still functional, some remain only within the memory of older generations , the water body itself lost to time or greed.

My body is the indexical marker, pointing to the labyrinths of water tables and sources which keep the city alive. The sites are places which still carry names of old water bodies of Delhi, like ‘Chappar Wala Kuh’- Thatched Well at the Karol Bagh crossing, covered over in the early 1980s; ‘Panchkuin’ or Five Well Road; ‘Khari Baoli’ - Brackish Stepwell; Janta Piau, one of the oldest wells, right in the middle of the road opposite Old Delhi railway station.

The body becomes an abstraction, a de-humanized silhouette. At other times the head in supplication is so bowed down that it is an admission of guilt, a metaphor for defeat, submission, confessing, giving myself, yourself to Dvaipayana in the form of river, lake or well.

The work may also express mourning, a moment of silence.

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Atul Bhalla uses photography, installation, sculpture, video and performance to question the human relationship with the natural and constructed environment. He teaches in the Department of Art, Design and Performing Arts at Shiv Nadar University.

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