The City and the Sea

Current-day Mumbai was originally an archipelago of seven separate islands in the marsh waters of the Arabian Sea off the western coast of India. As a result of large-scale civil engineering projects in the 18th and 19th centuries, the islands were joined into a single land mass appropriated from the sea itself. Now the financial capital of India with a population of approximately 20.19 million residents, Mumbai continues to build on every available piece of land, a policy that has dramatically impacted its natural ecosystem. In addition, unseasonable rains, stronger monsoons and higher tides – the results of climate change – have damaged the area’s crops and caused major flooding in a city with few places for the water to go.

Meera Devidayal

Mumbai painter and video artist, Meera Devidayal, has a lot to say about her city’s relationship with the sea that surrounds it. Born in Delhi and raised in Kolkata, she moved to Mumbai in 1967, where she has lived since. Devidayal’s work over the decades has focused on the city and has included subjects such as the city’s destination as a “dream city” for migrants, and the ghostly presence of its ruined textile mills. It was an experience in 2015, though, that turned her attention to the ocean waters around Mumbai.

On a visit to her husband’s office, which is located in a dense complex of high-rise buildings at Nariman Point, Devidayal suddenly noticed reflections of the sea on the windows facing the building next door. It was a stunning observation because she could not actually see the ocean from where she was standing. In a 2018 article in the publication Firstpost, Devidayal describes her initial reaction to what she was seeing:

It intrigued me because there were these reflections, but the sea was nowhere. Visually, it was surreal and very interesting. I had begun thinking about the idea that the sea had always been there. This area was built on reclaimed land, and the sea had been taken over by it. But it was still visible in the form of these reflections. That set me on the track to explore the sea as a metaphor for nature or the planet, while the concrete buildings are a metaphor for what man’s place on Earth is…You can’t go on and on disturbing the ecological balance. The sea is going to have its revenge…

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Mirage, charcoal, acrylic, digital print on canvas, 39” x 127”, 2018

Water Has Memory

Photographing the reflections on the windows over the course of the next year, Devidayal captured how they varied significantly depending on the time of day, the weather and the motions of the waves. She began to think that “it was almost as if the sea was trying to tell you that ‘I am here even if you can’t see me.’” The notion of the ocean “speaking up” to assert its presence and power over the man-made environment became the focus of Devidayal’s two-year project.

Devidayal used photographs and footage she had taken of the sea reflections to create a video entitled Water Has Memory. The video became the centerpiece of a 2018 exhibition of the same name at the Chemould Prescott Road Gallery in Mumbai.

Water Has Memory begins with a quotation by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, whose monumental body of work deals with the weight of memory. The quotation, which is particularly appropriate to the theme of Devidayal’s project, reads as follows:

No empty space is really empty. Everywhere it is filled with the traces of the past. The past will always be there in the present. Whatever we put into a place will be mingled with whatever was there before.

The video goes on to reveal a series of images of the worn-out façade of Mr. Devidayal’s high-rise office building and reflections of the sea on its windows. Employees are visible behind the reflections working at desks, talking on phones and conducting meetings without regard for the outside world. In one image, a window washer is cleaning right over one of the reflections as if he is actually erasing the sea.

The patterns of the water reflections are sometimes horizontal and sometimes diagonal; the water shimmers, moves quickly or slowly, consumes all of a window or just a portion of it. We hear sounds of the sea sloshing against the shore, fog horns and the motors of boats. Within some of the reflections, tiny vessels cross the window space, creating a surreal impression of an alternate world. Eventually, our viewpoint moves to a view of the sea itself overrunning a busy city street and then subsuming the built environment.

Water Has Memory, 2018

A second video, entitled Mirage, was also part of Devidayal’s 2018 exhibition. Our viewpoint at the beginning of this video is from the sea looking towards Mumbai. At first, the city is just a shadowy image, a silent “mirage.” As the soundtrack kicks in, we begin to see a clear image of a bridge and then the skyline of the city. We move to a construction worker in the process of building a new structure and a series of high-rises, which morph into a skyline of ice. Then a barefoot laborer feeds slabs of ice into an ice-cutting machine until that frame morphs once again into a silent view of the sparkling sea. As Devidayal said in an April 2018 article for the Hindustan Times, “the buildings will ultimately melt away.” Mirage ends with a boat crossing the water with just the shadow of buildings appearing underneath the sea.

Mirage, 2018

In addition to the videos, the Water Has Memory exhibition included poetry and a series of drawings grouped under the title The Serene Brutality of the Ocean (see above and below). In these drawings, the ocean is both calm and powerful. The boats, general travelers, and refugees that journey on its surface are under its control and will reach their destinations according to its ultimate will.

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The Serene Brutality of the Sea, graphite, acrylic and blue marker on paper, 11.5″ x 16.5″, 2018

In our recent Skype conversation, Devidayal spoke about her ideas for her next project, which will also focus on water. She stressed how precious water is in Mumbai, a city that relies on the monsoon rains that normally occur from June to September to satisfy the needs of its enormous population for the entire year. She spoke about the residents of Mumbai’s slums and the 50-60 tribal villages who don’t have access to running water. Although these villages are located near the main catchment area for the city, their residents must walk long distances to reach unreliable wells for their water. Devidayal plans to use images of the vast network of water storage tanks that are universally visible on the city’s buildings juxtaposed with images of the wells that villagers are forced to use.

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Water Tank, digital print, charcoal, dry pastel and acrylic on paper, 7.5” x 9.5”, 2019
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The Well, 11.5” x 9”, digital print, dry pastel, charcoal and acrylic on paper, 2019

In all of her work, Devidayal’s devotion to and affection for her city are apparent.  She tells what she calls “visual stories” that are not meant to be literal or didactic in order to encourage the public to think about and be aroused by what these “stories” represent. Water Has Memory, her tale of the city and the sea, is both a warning about what may soon occur as well as an aesthetically powerful portrayal of Mumbai.

(Top image: The Serene Brutality of the Ocean, graphite, acrylic and blue marker on paper, 11.5″ x 16.5,” 2018)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate change a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer. Her work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the US and she has received numerous grants and commissions. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and drawings have focused on water and climate change. She co-created a national, interactive public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – dead trees that have been exposed to salt water as a result of rising tides.

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