Thursday, January 21, 2010

Interview: Environmentalist Photographer Ravi Agarwal

Ravi Agarwal  is an environmentalist, photographer, and writer who lives and works in New Delhi.  Agarwal's photos and writing have appeared widely, both here and abroad, but like many in Delhi, I first saw his work in First City, where his  photo column is a regular feature. That column, "< ALT > View",   typically consists of one photo and minimal  text;  more like a photo-poem than photo-essay.  Agarwal raises all kinds of interesting questions about the city we live in.  Today, we are lucky enough to get his perspective on some of those questions.

Before you became a photographer, you were an engineer.  How were those kinds of work alike?  How were they different?
Actually I was a photographer before everything, since I was 13 years old. Engineering was analysis, fourier transforms, physics, mathematics - all about understanding and designing to make things work and happen. Photography was walking on the streets, smelling the monsoon, talking to rickhshawallas, exploring bylanes and being free. They were both different. One I had to work hard for, the other came naturally!
You describe yourself as an environmentalist photographer.  What does that term mean to you?
This is just a description of my two current engagements in life. At another level, I define my relationship with the world as a 'personal ecology' and my photographic work as well as now video and installation work resonates with that idea - so in a sense they come together as well.

Why photography? What subjects, what ideas, interest you most in your work?
Photography follows my life and engagements. My subjects have ranged from the street, to labor, 'work,' river, urban scapes and also self performance. It is a companion to me.

Talk about the tension you see in Delhi between nature and what is usually called development or growth.
Delhi has been losing its relationship with the natural world for over a 100 years. This is most accelerated now. The idea of a city itself is a industrial age idea, where water is transported in, waste is transported out, energy is streamed in and land is divided for habitation. It is itself an idea which confronts technology and nature as a separation. In cities as well as in Delhi,nature becomes a 'necessity' an 'aesthetic,' a place of leisure and recreation. Hence nature is only defined in relationship to the city. This is very much our own existence as well.

Physically, we have lost over 150,000 trees for the new Commonwealth Games, a 10 day phenomenon. We have sacrificed the river flood plain to temples and housing. We have built metros and roads and malls on the Ridge. Most of all we have isolated nature, since Delhi is now surrounded by urbanisation all around. So nature is something we have to fight to keep, on its own it is shrinking and will disappear one day. If this is development, then we need to question it in a basic way. Does 'development' take us away from our 'roots?'

We've been hearing about the Commonwealth Games for years now.  They have been used to justify all kinds of things--from the metro to new flyovers and sports venues.  What is your sense of this? Has it all been worth it?
If we have the Commonwealth Games at all! We will have something, held in patched up stadiums and with the poor people 'hidden' from view. It is all bizzare, all this frenzy in the name of the games, while actually it is about ambition, money and false pride. We treat our sports people so badly, so how can we talk of the Games as a sport? It is everything else couched as 'sport.'

What holds Delhi back its quest to become "World Class?"
A world class city can only be built through a society which is just, fair and respectful to each other. The city is not an architectural project, it is a human one. Architecture has to suit that. We have placed the idea of spectacular and scale before the human. Else why would we destroy trees, displace people, throw out beggars, take away parks etc.? Any world class city is a very livable city, where people can work, create, interract ect. Can we say that about Delhi? I do not think so. We could earlier, now we can less and less.

Can you tell us something that is working well in Delhi?  Something environmentalists (and photographers) from other cities and countries can learn from this city?
I think the city has great human potential. it has great energy on its street, and great entrepreneurship. It has thinkers, writers, artists, politicians, activists... all. This is the new capacity in the city. It has intensity.  We can learn that any place needs 'engagement' for it to grow. A city cannot become anything without such involvement. At another level, the metro is a great success, even though it cannot address the needs of all people. The metro stands out, overall.  

Anything else you'd like to add?
Only something  I feel....
Life is short, and uncertain. we should try to live it with that sense of urgency and engagement. No matter what we do, we should do it, and do it well.

To find out more about Ravi Agarwal and his work, check out his website here.


  1. The humane face of development is missing in the present process of urbanization. Delhi is a classy case where we have slaughtered Yamuna, covering the poverty for Common Wealth, on the name of making a world class city we destroyed the environmental heritage. Last to last year in frustration I wrote a piece "Letter from Yamuna" sharing with you here.
    Letter from Yamuna

    Revered Citizens of India,

    I am mother of one sixth of humanity, But now a stigma on my own sons. My own sons are raping me for their own prosperity and development. I want to tell you what is my story and what are my ideas while sitting on the death bed.

    My story starts from a myth and a reality. My sons believe that I came from heaven while scientists say that I have originated from the glaciers of Himalayas. I believe in both. My father is Himalaya and I originate from Yamunotari glacier, now in state of Uttarakhand. My birth was considered as the end of vows of Aryan civilization. The oldest civilization started flourishing on my banks and sister Ganges also supported this cause. World’s greatest religion was founded in my territory. The Godly men like Sri Krishana played in my lap, Hazarat Nizamudin the follower of last Prophet spread the message of peace in front of my eyes, Sahib-e-Kamal Guru Gobind Singh composed divine poems in my company. The mighty rulers came to conquer the lands of mine. My children fought well, many were martyred but they never surrendered. I am the symbol of their courage and spirit of freedom. When Britishers took off the city residing my side, I felt a little bit discouraged. Blood was shed but Alas! Peace came. They gave my daughter Delhi same status which she had before. I felt satisfied.

  2. (Continued..)
    At the mighty night on 14th August, 1947 my sons claimed independence. The first Prime Minister of India removed the flag of slavery from Red Fort and displayed the flag of sovereignty. My eyes were full of tears and my heart was filled with happiness. I felt proud of my sons.

    My hopes started shattering with the rise of India. I saw the development; my soul started questioning the inhuman face of ongoing progress. My own sons started encroaching my hands, somewhere they constructed huge dams to suck my blood, I said nothing instead felt proud with the idea that I am serving my sons. On the door of my daughter Delhi, Wazirabad I was again captured. The water from my body was satisfying the thirst of capital. My heart was delighted with this. While I was welcomed by Najafgarh drain in the entrance, I made the cancerous water part of my pure blood. After this episode I didn’t stop many other drains were thrown in me forcibly. The cities like Agra, Vrindavan, Mathura and Allahabad instead of protesting started competing with Delhi. I felt betrayed.

    Today, when more than 60 years of independence have been completed, I am dying. On the death bed only sometimes my lips start moving. I start laughing on my sons. On one side they are raping me and my sisters, their own mothers. While on the other hand, they are fighting for the temple of Rama in Ayodhya, burned whole of Gujarat and Mumbai for that, this seems to me very contradictory. I am their mother existing in this world serving them, instead of fighting for my cause. They are killing thousands of innocent people for a person whose mere existence has been questioned by many intellectuals. Now the Amarnath issue, my sons are the foolish people I have seen in the world. For a mere piece of land they have placed heaven of earth on fire. The lands of me and my sister, their mothers with whose pure milk they have flourished are being encroached. They themselves celebrating the encroachment and fighting for God, about whose existence nobody is sure.

    Shame on me and my sons.

    Mother of 115 crores of shameless people.


    1. Home healthcare helps senior citizens live individually for because... -term medical home treatment. More particularly, home healthcare may consist of occupational as well as physical treatment...

  3. Another piece on Delhi's waste management!
    A trip to resurgent temples of Modern India

    Last day, we had a trip to amazing place in Delhi namely, Okhla Landfill near Tuglakabad fort, the emerging mountain range of Delhi. It is the smallest landfill site in Delhi with an area of 50 acres. The beauty of the region cannot be explained in words. A young fold hill rising from the ground surface, here geomorphological or geological processes are not contributing in this noble cause. But the domestic activities at our homes and construction sites are fulfilling the absence of geo-processes. The site has a very fragile ecology, we need to conserve it. The biodiversity is also emerging, crows flying in the sky, grass and other plants growing around, cows and dogs moving around satisfy the criteria of rich biodiversity. This hill started emerging in 1995, but the load is more than its capacity. Everyday more than 1150 M.T. is contributed to increase the height and make it a mountain. Even this place also fulfills the eligibility for a volcano too, as gases are fuming out. Even one can found the beautiful black streams emerging, which makes it similar to young fold mountains of Himalayas. My mental condition was similar to William Wordsworth when he was looking at Daffodils. We had a nice trek there. My friends wanted to have a proper picnic; some were in the favor of camping and camp fire. I had the same feeling which Edmund Hillary had while capturing the Mount Everest. This place needs heritage status too. I request all the organizations to come forward and help us in making it a complete mountain range similar to Andes and Himalayas. My appeal to all citizens of India is to make India proud, by creating these types of mountain and plateau ranges in every city, town and village.

    Forward this message to every enlightened Indian. We need your support. Issued in public interest by Garbage Mountain Preservation Campaign, New Delh

  4. @Kabir, Thanks for posting these. Both are powerful in their own way! We have to figure out a better way to handle our trash--and to protect our rivers...

  5. Those of you who are regulars at the Dhaba will notice I've gotten rid of the strange comment machine I had up here and went back to the blogger format. The good news is, I don't seem to have lost any comments. The bad news is I've lost all the links, pictures, etc. Oh well. I could never figure that machine out anyway, and they were telling me I had to pay them money...this is much simpler!

  6. I like this interview very much. I agree with the last lines in the interview, and I also like what Kabir wrote.

  7. Great guest posts and interviews Hari. Fancy bells and whistles are over-rated, especially when they cost money!

  8. @Thurman, Thanks! I agree about the bells and whistles, too.

    @Michelle, Thanks for stopping by.


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