The Ganga is celebrated in myth, venerated as a symbol central to the Hindu religious imagination and ritual life. It is also one of the planet’s most toxic and dangerously polluted rivers. Vast amounts of industrial effluent and human waste are daily poured into its waters, whether in the sacred city of Varanasi, with its riverbank cremations and untreated sewage, or upstream in Kanpur, with its tanneries and glue factories. The human cost of this poisoning of the environment is borne by the vulnerable subaltern communities, both hereditary and conscripted, whose livelihood forces them to work with, or in, the river. Chief among these communities are the Doms or funeral specialists of Varanasi and the workers in Kanpur’s industries. Stigmatised and marginalised by the prejudices of caste apartheid, they are also routinely exposed to health hazards.

These are the ecological and social scenarios into which the artist Hari Katragadda has waded, during the last few years, with profound empathy and a quiet courage. For his debut solo exhibition, which I have titled Lost River, we have gathered together four of his works or bodies of work, all based on the cyanotype technique. While the appellation of “lost river” is more properly associated with the Saraswati, which is believed to have vanished underground, it conveys poignantly all that has gone wrong with the Ganga.

Hari Katragadda studied astrophysics at IUCAA, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, and photojournalism at the University of Texas, Austin. While working as a photojournalist in New Delhi, he developed a documentary practice focused on exploring the contexts and inner lives of communities over long periods. A striking example of this is his 2009-’15 suite dedicated to the village of Malana in Himachal Pradesh, associated in the popular imagination with the highly sought-after strain of cannabis that is cultivated there. Rather than isolating this detail, Katragadda initiated an empathetic dialogue with the villagers, journeying with them through seasons of joy, despair, uncertainty and hope, offering testimony to their struggles and aspirations, their traversal of the uncharted landscapes between codified tradition and erratic change.

Unregulated disposal of more than 3000 human cadavers and 6000 animal carcasses into the Ganges every year poses a serious health risk to the people dependent on it. Poor families, who cannot afford to buy enough firewood for the cremation, dump partially burnt dead bodies into the river. Cyanotype print on paper, 29.7cmx42cm, 2016

A versatile trans-media artist, Katragadda works with multiple photographic techniques, drawing, painting, video and the artist book. A choreography of programme and chance plays a crucial role in his artistic process, which is strongly informed by conceptualist preoccupations with repetition, iteration and performative gesture. He has received the Habitat Photosphere Award (2016), the Focàs India-Scotland Award (2017), and the Invisible Photographer Asia Art Award (2017). In 2020, a photobook on which he collaborated with his partner, Shweta Upadhyay, I’ll be Looking at the Moon but I’ll be Seeing You, received the Alkazi Photobook Grant; it was later shortlisted for the Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award.

In 2015, Katragadda adopted the cyanotype technique. Based on registering images on chemically coated paper by exposing it to sunlight, it is a legacy from photography’s infancy. In Katragadda’s handling, it becomes a sophisticated means of recording the shift from a documentary to an abstractionist mode that is nevertheless robustly engaged with the political, and is not a turning away from it. Cyanotype prints allow the artist to bring the contaminated river directly into contact with the plate. 24 Foam Impressions is a grid of cyanotype prints, made every hour for a 24-hour period by exposing the print to the flow of the Ganga and developing it in the water of the river at the point where the Nagwa Nala, one of Varanasi’s main drains, pours into it.

Disregarding the classical insistence on using only distilled water to develop cyanotypes, the artist uses the pollutant-heavy water of the Ganga to create cyan and turquoise images of foaming effluent, or disjecta from funerals, or dogs who survive at the fringes of the obsequies economy. Katragadda counts Ed Ruscha’s work, especially the book work, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations (1963), as an inspiration for his iterative conceptualist strategies. The Shimmer, a video installation based on 24 Foam Impressions, generates a portrait of the Ganga through glitch and gleam, cycle and rupture, the river’s moods over the course of 24 hours.

Just as dramatically, in You Can’t Step into the Same River Twice, he uses ash or chromium sludge from the Ganga as pigment to render figures, or deploys leather strips and lengths of fish net as collage elements. The plate bears direct material witness to the tragic state of our riverine ecologies, the horrors of social discrimination and injustice, the brutal asymmetries of livelihood. Here, Hari carries forward the Art Brut tradition of Dubuffet and the Art Informel tradition of Antoni Tapies.

Shroud is an installation based on a cyanotype made with a bier, flowers, ash, bones, and water collected at the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi on a shroud. A cosmology premised on churning chaos takes shape on Katragadda’s surfaces, as he demonstrates the cycles of life and death, livelihood and fatality that are enacted on the river. This sacred city has many names, among which are Ananda-vana, the Forest of Joy, and Rudra-vana, the Forest of the Wrathful One; Kashi, the City of Light, and Maha-shmashana, the Great Field of Death. Nowhere are the paradoxes of contemporary Hinduism more starkly dramatised than here; nowhere are the vast environmental and humanitarian costs exacted by our civilisational hypocrisy in greater evidence. We pollute, brutally, the same river whose waters we regard as a token of immortality. Our pathways to the sacred are secured on the basis of the labour of communities who we condemn to hereditary degradation, squalor, misery and abject lack. Katragadda’s deliberate conjunction of the cult of purity associated with the Ganga’s rituals and the empirical fact of pollution in its waters points unerringly to a critique of caste. In these waters, either everyone is pure or no one is.

This is an excerpt from a curatorial essay for Hari Katragadda’s Lost River which is on display at the Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai Gallery Weekend, from January 11-February 17.

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator.

Toxic foam from the irrigation water released from the effluent treatment plant in Jajmau accumulates in an agricultural field in Motipur village, Kanpur. Even after passing through a sewage treatment plant, this water contains Hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic carcinogen. It acidifies the soil and seeps into the groundwater contaminating the food chain and finds its way into the Ganges.