"Rivers don’t recognize artificial political boundaries"

Reena Saini Kallat in conversation with Helen Hirsch, 2023

Deep Rivers Run Quiet delves into the profound work of Reena Saini Kallat, a renowned contemporary artist from India. Kallat's art explores the dynamics of boundaries in a world defined by mobility and interaction, shedding light on divisive national and psychological barriers. Her artwork vividly illustrates the subversion of these barriers, using electric cables resembling barbed wire. Through hybrid figures and river motifs, she challenges the violent cleaving of land and nature, ultimately unveiling the illusion of isolation and advocating for cultural pluralism.
Reena Saini Kallat, born in 1973 in Delhi, is celebrated for her diverse artistic practice, encompassing painting, sculpture, installation, photography, and video. Her art is deeply influenced by the Indian Partition, an experience her paternal family endured. Her work has garnered international acclaim, with exhibitions at esteemed institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tate Modern.
In the following interview excerpt from the book Deep Rivers Run Quiet, the artist talks to curator Helen Hirsch about the deep connections between rivers, borders, and human existence.

Helen Hirsch:
I want to approach the currents of your inspirations, which flow into your artistic repertoire in many layers of expression, by recourse to this poem from the famous Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore (1891–1941). The river is a recurrent motif in his literary works and, in his comparison to the human body, clearly depicts the connection between the body of human life and flowing rivers. The primary themes in your work, meanwhile, also unveil political, social, and environmental layers at both a national and global level. Through your artistic language, we become aware of how deeply fluid and connected everything is, and how important it is to keep the circulatory system of nature in balance. In bringing together these relevant questions through a multidisciplinary language, one which is also rooted in your personal stories and closely embedded in the political upheaval in your homeland of India, we become conscious of the strong interdependence of nature and humans on this planet. In shaping our exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, we decided to focus the first part of the show on recent works related to rivers and their political impact on humans and territories. The fact that our museum is situated on the longest Swiss river, the Aare, which draws down directly from the Alps and culminates in the Rhine River, gives us a perfect environment for your work. The Aare River is visible from the windows from the south side of the museum and interacts with your river works. Rivers are the existential lifeline for all individuals, and they serve as hugely important sources of water and energy as well as transportation corridors and fishing grounds. Many people have settled along them. India is home to one of the world’s largest rivers, the Indus, a transboundary river also shared between China and Pakistan, which has accordingly been highly politicized. Another great river, the Ganga Ma — Mother Ganges — is also a life bringer that is deeply connected to the life, death, and rebirth of the Hindus. As shown in your works River Drawings, 2021 (pp. 38,41), The Water Book, 2022 (pp. 78/79), and Leaking Lines (River Drawings), 2019–20 (pp. 10–13) rivers are arteries of connection, yet they can also be a means of creating boundaries and separation. Rivers also traverse boundaries and borders, connecting people across vast storied landscapes and becoming sites of contestation, conflict, and trauma.

Reena Kallat: Our connection to water lies both internally and externally, water being the origin of all known forms of life and our bodies primarily being composed of it. While I’ve drawn analogies between land and body, rivers, and veins in works such as Crease/ Crevice/Contour (2008) or Woven Veins (2010), I began thinking more deeply about our relationship with rivers as communities that depend on them when I was part of the River Biennale at the Campbelltown Art Centre in Sydney in 2010. Rivers have always played an important role in human history. They’ve been the lifeblood of civilizations and yet much of the conflict between countries has surrounded the use and ownership of natural resources, whether these be land or waters. 2 Degrees (p.42/43) emerged out of my longstanding interest in the relationship between politically split, but historically connected, countries. I was thinking about the Indus River and its multiple tributaries of Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej flowing into India—and the Jhelum River, Chenab River, and Indus River into Pakistan—as well as the partitioning of the waters in the 60s. While the river may have multiple names, the waters essentially remain the same. Sounds from the river collected at various points formed the audio that ran through the split urns. The lined terracotta pots were also a reminder of our links through the Indus Valley Civilization. I was alluding to the long shared histories that run far deeper than any national divisions. The wall drawing was made in henna with one half consisting of the banyan tree while the other half was the deodar tree, the two national trees of India and Pakistan, which stem from the same soil and even share roots. This work was the genesis of the series of Hyphenated Lives (pp. 22–25) that followed later.

HH: Your work shows how rivers have shaped history by becoming borders. How do you see the link between rivers and borders?

RK: Rivers don’t recognize artificial political boundaries. Instead, they flow freely, feeding and nourishing states on either side of them. The controversial Radcliffe Line drawn during the partition between India and Pakistan, or the McMahon Line between Tibet/China and Arunachal Pradesh in India, were arbitrarily imposed by British colonial officers. These cut through communities on either side such as the Pashtun population between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the case of the Durand Line, without thinking of the people, hills, valleys, or rivers that flow across them. While our dependence on rivers as a shared resource should encourage and enable us to find more ways for cooperation between countries, often the sharing of waters results in the partitioning of the rivers, whether it be the Indus River, the Nile, or the Colorado. Many transboundary agreements in dispute surround who controls access to the river with the course of the river itself manipulated and changed through dams or other hydroelectric projects.

HH: Historically, indigenous communities have taken care of nature and recognised that it needs special protection rather than treating it as a commodity. In 2017, this “rights based” approach underwent a major breakthrough when four rivers across the world received recognition of their legal rights — in New Zealand, Colombia, and India. These examples attest to the growing importance of a rights based approach to environmental protection. Do you think that rivers should have the same rights as humans?

RK: The river is a living body and needs to be protected, since it is of importance not just to humans but to entire ecosystems. These legal recognitions in New Zealand, Colombia, and India are indeed welcome steps as they contribute to shifting how we view rivers. These laws can help set boundaries against encroachment as human activities continue to alter and affect the landscape by reshaping it. Instead of relating to the river as a resource, according to the extractivist model, this approach challenges us from treating it as a commodity to be owned and exploited, by raising consciousness of the rights of nature. It would be naive to not recognise our interconnectedness with other life forms. Our actions impact entire bionetworks and millions of other species with whom we share this planet. We can also learn from successful examples such as the Arpaçay River between Armenia and Turkey, or the Danube between Serbia and Croatia, where transboundary agreements have resolved conflicts through collaboration.


You can find the unedited interview in our publication Deep Rivers Run Quiet.

Deep Rivers Run Quiet

Veröffentlicht am: 22.11.2023