OCTOBER 2021
Kushal Gupta’s calm, polished disposition belies how passionately he feels for India as an artist.

Belonging originally to Aligarh and having grown up in Agra not far from the Yamuna and the Taj Mahal, Gupta proceeded to live in the Middle East for 7 years, followed by a shift to the UK, where he currently resides. Having worked as a documentary photographer for 3-4 years, he divulges the stories  and processes behind his work, “Yamuna Drank Our Sins and Turned Black”.

Kushal reveals that the Yamuna project is almost like a child of chance that emerged unexpectedly from a study of healthcare in the mountains of Uttarakhand. An enroute visit to Delhi and the Yamuna Ghat yielded to him a deplorable sight: the localities trying to secure an income from a river that looked like it was in its death throes. Objectively speaking, it was a black sludge that he saw people living by, washing their clothes in and bathing in. Still praying at the ghat despite everything, their seeming obliviousness compelled Gupta to direct his lens toward the scene over the next three years.

Kushal’s quest to understand the root cause of the problem yielded to him several observations: “People who go and pray will take artifacts and throw them in and then still complain that it’s a dying river.”  Combine that with a government that is redirecting the Yamuna for other purposes, and industries criminally dumping their waste in the river, and you have a multifaceted predicament that most affects the people in close proximity to it.

Gupta knew he didn’t want his work to look like all the other western-pandering photos of India; seeking authenticity, he spent 15 days living in Vrindavan and went down from there to Mathura, spent 15 days in Agra, and another 20 in Delhi. Letting his encounters with the subjects of his images be dominated with conversation and not photography, Kushal focused on making connections that were beyond surface-level. “I didn’t want to be just another pretentious photographer from London,” he says earnestly. With a task dotted with hurdles beyond just the issue of misrepresentation— including a brush with pneumonia in Vrindavan and an arrest and near-encounter for trespassing, in Agra— Kushal believes these experiences to be part of the process.

On the topic of the visual thematics that tie his project together, Kushal says that he ran into the atmosphere in his photographs organically. Awed by the dedication of the devotees who came to the river in the wee morning hours, Kushal took to shooting just before 5 AM. This soft morning light created a particular look, foggy and unclear; subsequently, it became a conscious decision for Kushal to chase this ambiguity and lack of clarity.

Kushal’s  interactions with the locals were pivotal to the realization of the project and unearthed a range of altogether different contexts.  As we scour the photos and look closely, he points out a photo of a man with a big scar across his face standing in front of a white tree. “He was a heroin addict like a lot of people in the area. The scar came from being glassed in a fight.” Another photograph is of a child called Salman whom he visited over 3-4 days in the place where he lived— by the river, under a bridge that was never completed. His father is a washer man who cleans the sheets and blankets used in trains. Salman’s community was closed-off and aloof; Kushal was only allowed to be a part of it after having gone back and forth a few times to build trust between them. “You have to talk to them about who they are, what they do and how they feel about the situation there.”

The title of Kushal’s project itself— “Yamuna Drank our Sins and Turned Black”— was said by one of the people he photographed, who owns a boat and pushes it across the river in Delhi. Kushal thought about how profound a thing it was to think and say; it was a sentence that never left him.

Kushal has become very jaded with photographers taking advantage of people: “The main thing I’m conscious of is that my work should not be exploitative in any way.”

The title of Kushal’s project itself— “Yamuna Drank our Sins and Turned Black”— was said by one of the people he photographed, who owns a boat and pushes it across the river in Delhi. Kushal thought about how profound a thing it was to think and say; it was a sentence that never left him.

Kushal has become very jaded with photographers taking advantage of people: “The main thing I’m conscious of is that my work should not be exploitative in any way.”  He has tried to be sensitive in his approach so that the photos and text don’t portray the people as the cause of the effect, but come across more like a snapshot of the many facets behind the state of the Yamuna river.

Kushal underscores that there has to be ambiguity in photography. It is this embrace of the numerous visually abstracted forces at work around the river that successfully come through in his thoughtful and mindful work.

Kushal reveals that the Yamuna project is almost like a child of chance that emerged unexpectedly from a study of healthcare in the mountains of Uttarakhand. An enroute visit to Delhi and the Yamuna Ghat yielded to him a deplorable sight: the localites trying to secure an income from a river that looked like it was in its death throes. Objectively speaking, it was a black sludge that he saw people living by, washing their clothes in and bathing in. Still praying at the ghat despite everything, their seeming obliviousness compelled Gupta to direct his lens toward the scene over the next three years.

Gupta knew he didn’t want his work to look like all the other western-pandering photos of India; seeking authenticity, he spent 15 days living in Vrindavan and went down from there to Mathura, spent 15 days in Agra, and another 20 in Delhi. Letting his encounters with the subjects of his images be dominated with conversation and not photography, Kushal focused on making connections that were beyond surface-level. “I didn’t want to be just another pretentious photographer from London,” he says earnestly. With a task dotted with hurdles beyond just the issue of misrepresentation— including a brush with pneumonia in Vrindavan and an arrest and near-encounter for trespassing, in Agra— Kushal believes these experiences to be part of the process.

On the topic of the visual thematics that tie his project together, Kushal says that he ran into the atmosphere in his photographs organically. Awed by the dedication of the devotees who came to the river in the wee morning hours, Kushal took to shooting just before 5 AM. This soft morning light created a particular look, foggy and unclear; subsequently, it became a conscious decision for Kushal to chase this ambiguity and lack of clarity.

Kushal’s  interactions with the locals were pivotal to the realisation of the project and unearthed a range of altogether different contexts.  As we scour the photos and look closely, he points out a photo of a man with a big scar across his face standing in front of a white tree. “He was a heroin addict like a lot of people in the area. The scar came from being glassed in a fight.” Another photograph is of a child called Salman whom he visited over 3-4 days in the place where he lived— by the river, under a bridge that was never completed. His father is a washer man who cleans the sheets and blankets used in trains. Salman’s community was closed-off and aloof; Kushal was only allowed to be a part of it after having gone back and forth a few times to build trust between them. “You have to talk to them about who they are, what they do and how they feel about the situation there.”

Kushal’s  interactions with the locals were pivotal to the realisation of the project and unearthed a range of altogether different contexts.  As we scour the photos and look closely, he points out a photo of a man with a big scar across his face standing in front of a white tree. “He was a heroin addict like a lot of people in the area. The scar came from being glassed in a fight.” Another photograph is of a child called Salman whom he visited over 3-4 days in the place where he lived— by the river, under a bridge that was never completed. His father is a washer man who cleans the sheets and blankets used in trains. Salman’s community was closed-off and aloof; Kushal was only allowed to be a part of it after having gone back and forth a few times to build trust between them. “You have to talk to them about who they are, what they do and how they feel about the situation there.”

The title of Kushal’s project itself— “Yamuna Drank our Sins and Turned Black”— was said by one of the people he photographed, who owns a boat and pushes it across the river in Delhi. Kushal thought about how profound a thing it was to think and say; it was a sentence that never left him.