When precious little has been spoken about Delhi's environmental problems during an election year, especially in the month when polling took place, the notion that trees need to be ‘humanised’ is an absurd one to even consider.
But such is the situation — the ludicrous nature of the problem that the national capital has created for itself. Last year, after it was announced that some 16000 trees would be razed to redevelop and resettle old colonies for government officials, hundreds of citizens turned out to protest. While some tied the trees with rakhis, some hugged them and wept for them.
Among the protestors was Delhi-based Juhi Saklani, who has spent years photographing trees in different corners of the country. Saklani’s photo project Human/Nature is a distress call, an indictment of a world in which humans have become anti-human.
Saklani’s photos have two elements — a crumbling house with an old tree as something that has gone missing. In one case, a tree can be seen in a mirror, in another it stares despondently from behind a crumbling wall.
These trees brood, it seems, not for want of ownership, but for want of space to breathe and grow.
How ironic that a city struggling to breathe, won’t let its trees sleep easy either. “I had been photographing trees around the country for years. When the protests in Delhi happened and this horrifying plan was put forth, I decided to go and photograph these colonies — the crumbling houses, the trees that are now no longer there. Which is why a majority of the houses here are from Sarojni Nagar and Netaji Nagar,” Saklani says.
Saklani’s photos are also accompanied by text that must be read to contextualise the near-surrealism of the images. Saklani regularly mentions the absurd notion that redevelopment, or development, has for some reason become a battle between concrete and the environment — a false dichotomy in which the latter is always the loser. “It is stupid to think that there can be development without clean air or green cover, that there can be luxury in life without essentials like clean water and air. This idea of progress is my main concern in life right now,” Saklani says.
Tellingly, none of Saklani’s photos feature a human figure.
“Perhaps it is because humans have largely played a missing role in decision making. Strangely, every decision taken with any environmental fallout is anti-human. There is nothing to suggest we are the focus of decisions we take,” she says.
Part of the ridiculousness that Saklani’s project points to is predominantly internal and unmistakably human – the simple fact that we have become ignorant of the trees around us. “A number of people who see the exhibition tell me they are now more conscious of trees around them. I met a woman who still goes to her old house to put out food for the dogs. A woman I met in Netaji Nagar told me she used to make pickle from the mangoes she would get from the trees next to her house. She wept at the loss of this relationship,” Saklani says.
Her photographs of trees superimposed as cut-outs on vacant spaces feels as surreal as our imagination seems restricted. Never would you witness a hoarding by the side of the road that advertises forest cover, or green pastures that are beyond mere formality.
Land not being built upon, it seems, has become land being wasted.
“I just want people to be more sensitive about this. Don’t admire the craft or anything, because it isn’t anything special. It just points you in the direction you need to be looking at. The art here is merely an arrow, the work exists for real,” she says.
Usually, the approach taken, at least in spirit, to compensate for the mass felling of trees is transplantation, something that Saklani believes is a glamorous myth that must be busted. “Most of the trees felled in these colonies will most likely be planted in the Yamuna flood plains. Some sites have become a common location for transplantation for not one but several projects. The seeds are planted, they die soon and then the same soil is fed with a fresh batch as compensation for a different project,” Saklani says.
Evidently, the process of compensation is more of an attempt at resurrection in the graveyard. Worse, with Delhi predicted to encounter an extreme water crisis by 2020, the prospect of a soil bed on the outskirts of the capital proving to be a good environment for a fresh batch of seedlings is unlikely. Such attempts seem to be eyewash, rather than scientific intervention.
It is perhaps reductive to remind oneself of the importance of talking about trees and caring for them. Saklani’s images, though haunting and poignant, will possibly do little to inspire people to reconsider their motivations and the greed that has pushed humans to become both anti-evolution and anti-growth. But it is absurdist again, to educate humans, whose decadence exists not because of mortality but despite it. It is hard not to worryingly focus on the missing people in Saklani’s photos, the inevitability of it all, the dreadful irony that people need to be asked to care for trees, as if they were, ‘people’.
All images courtesy of Juhi Saklani
Human/Nature is on display at DPC gallery, 78 Janpath