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Giving air pollution a face

  • A new exhibition, Breathless: An Artistic Call To India’s Air Pollution Crisis, presents stories of ordinary Indians resisting extraordinary levels of pollution
  • It features 60 images by photographer Ishan Tankha and stories penned by journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar

Samyakk Jain (left) and his father, who is a cancer survivor (Ishan Tankha)

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In 2018, The Greenpeace and AirVisual analysis found that 22 of the world’s worst cities for air pollution are in India. Readings from 3,000 cities around the world were studied. Figures such as these are thrown at us every day in an attempt to create some sense of urgency, yet the data-driven narrative tends to be myopic, Delhi-centric and sans empathy.

A new exhibition, titled Breathless: An Artistic Call To India’s Air Pollution Crisis, seeks to change that by giving the issue a human face. Stories make the crisis more personal, whether it is the portrait of young Samyakk Jain in Delhi, whose studies suffered during his father’s fight against cancer, or the dramatic image of a brightly lit power plant in Korba, Chhattisgarh, with its chimneys spewing fumes.

Organized by Help Delhi Breathe and Clean Air Collective, the exhibition features 60 images by photographer Ishan Tankha and stories by journalist Aruna Chandrasekhar. “How do you visualize the crisis? That was one of the driving factors for the exhibition,” says Chandrasekhar. “Of course, data is very important to show that Chennai, during Diwali last November, was just as bad as Delhi, but it’s also important to look at different environments, people getting impacted, and more.”

Three threads run through the show: ordinary Indians battling extraordinary pollution, ordinary Indians dealing with extraordinary disease, and ordinary Indians fighting extraordinary polluters. “So, we have a kabaddi coach, Srinivasan, taking on polluters in north Chennai. There is also the issue of environmental racism, wherein the labour and land of the marginalized community is sacrificed so that the rest of us have industrial growth. And yet they are the most vulnerable to air pollution,” says Chandrasekhar. She cites examples of sanitation workers in Bengaluru and landfill workers in Delhi who end up inhaling the maximum amount of fumes but are sometimes paid months later by corporations.

“We are happy to outsource our environmental responsibility to activists and then blame them for being anti-national for pointing out issues,” says Chandrasekhar. To create a more immersive experience, the exhibition also features a VR film directed by Faiza Khan and produced by Anand Gandhi and data art based on the air-quality feed from low-cost sensors across the country.

Breathless is on till 9 June at Delhi’s Bikaner House Gallery.

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