Juhi Saklani speaks to Nilofer Khan about the dichotomy that arises between conservation and city development today.
The year was 1974, when a middle-aged man from Uttarakhand, Sunderlal Bahuguna, became the face of the Chipko Andolan. He fought against the felling of trees by the government, and his slogan ‘Ecology is permanent economy’ was reiterated across the country. As the movement gained momentum, it inspired generations of activists from across India, one of them being Juhi Saklani. Also from Uttarakhand, the rich history of her native state laid the foundation for her bond with nature and her photography.
Having begun her career as a writer, where she was also expected to provide photographs to accompany her articles, Juhi found herself simultaneously devoting time to personal projects. In the interim, she discovered that she had been obsessively photographing trees. In 2016, after she moved out of South Delhi to a more congested area of the city, Juhi began to devotedly chronicle the trees around her. Two years later, her images won the Habitat Photosphere Fellowship for Photography, courtesy of the India Habitat Centre. Her mentor, Aditya Arya, coached her into documenting the different ways that tree roots grew out of the walls of old buildings. “It felt like nature was forcing herself on our awareness, insisting—Life will not be denied. These images are not works of art, the trees are,” she opines.
In the same year, seven government colonies in Delhi were sanctioned to be redeveloped. It meant that approximately 16,000 trees had to be cut down. “There was a huge commercial component to the projects. Nauroji Nagar was razed to make a World Trade Centre, while Sarojini Nagar was to host a commercial space of 19 lakh sq. meters. With research, it became clear that the projects had been hastily passed, with no proper studies of the impact on traffic or the environment,” she said.
“When we think of ‘human’ as separate from ‘nature’, we do great violence to ourselves, our lives, and our planet—evident in the dramatic way that the planet’s climate has been changing, as a consequence of deforestation, water crisis, and air pollution. It is going to lead to the extinction of humankind.”
The experiences of the people who had lived in these colonies led Juhi to work on the images you see here, from her series A Window into Redevelopment. “Initially, I photographed only the trees that would be lost to redevelopment. But later, I realised that the demolished houses, that held the stories of its residents, were equally important to the narrative. So, I decided to create digital collages of the houses in Sarojini Nagar and Netaji Nagar, along with the trees, to bring these worlds together.”
Juhi places the trees in front of the windows and the doors, or vice versa, to portray its beauty and the significance of its loss. “We have lost the meaning of development. The word has been reduced to imply investments, GDP, and statistical debates about the number of jobs being created. I am concerned with this idea of progress,” she said. Eventually, protests against the redevelopment scheme forced the government to take a step back, and rework their plan.
“Some official reports stated that Sarojini Nagar was a place of ‘no significant biodiversity’. But experts found 26 bird species and 11 types of butterflies, in a two-day survey.”
With a hint of nostalgia, Juhi has humanised nature by depicting its vulnerability and anguish. At the same time, through the absence of people and the dereliction in the frames, she has highlighted nature’s force in reclaiming its territory. “In my version of life, the old houses and threatened trees are still trying to find a way to coexist. For the moment, those trees are still standing,” she said.
Juhi Saklani is a Delhi-based writer and a self-taught photographer. She has worked for several well-known publications such as the Outlook Traveller, the Lonely Planet, The Hindu Sunday Magazine, and The Wire, amongst others. You can follow her work on Instagram @ juhi_saklani.Tags: August 2019, Cover Story, Interview, Juhi Saklani, Land Degradation