To lose a river
Niharika Chauhan (India)

“Where the river ebbs the slowest” is an intimate essay about the passing of time.

In it, I use collages, photographs, and films to study how time has enacted itself upon Shahpur, my village in Uttar Pradesh. This metamorphosis is most visibly recorded (and emotionally felt) via four entities—my decaying ancestral home, the now-dwindling Sambar population in this belt, the shifting course of the Yamuna, and my memories of my deceased grandfather.

The most frightening stage in any metamorphosis is when an obsolete form has eroded, but the new one is still a chaotic, pupal mess. In many ways, Shahpur lies on that cusp. Shedding its past of riverine agriculture, a thriving ecology, and lasting caste hierarchies, it faces a crisis of identity and loss.

Part I: The Ancestral Home

How do two centuries of lived life vanish? Cracks grow into walls like tendrils, and bit by bit, as people leave a house, it also leaves them. My now crumbling nineteenth century home in Shahpur stands devastated by rural outmigration, a phenomenon that affects countless social fabrics across the country. I first conceived of this project during a visit in 2020. Back then, as now, I was struck by how deserted it felt—a ghost town stood where there was once the legacy of elders and the promise of love.

My project highlights this emptiness by giving voice to the unspoken and unspeakable things that grief leaves in its wake.

Part II: The Deer

It is not just humans who migrate, flee, desert, or die. The Sambar deer, a large and magnificent animal that once populated the [forests] around Shahpur, is now a rare sight. Victimized by rampant industrial development, it too has found that old haunts have become uninhabitable. When we do find a glimpse of it, it is mounted on a wall. The taxidermied deer head is not only a vestige of human cruelty, but also a symbol of destructive caste-based power. Since hunting was reserved for the upper-caste populations, an endangered deer was a rare and enviable trophy to collect.

Part III: The River

The Yamuna cuts through Shahpur like an artery. A rushing river that once watered crops, fed children, and provided coolness in an arid place is now shrinking back, whether in fear or revulsion. Villages like Shahpur is where toxic run-off gathers, where the heavy displacement of soil causes drastic changes in the landscape. These changes occur slowly—sometimes over centuries—but they do occur.

As generations change hands in the village, they will not inherit the same river. Instead, they get swathes of exposed riverbed where the underbelly of unchecked development shows itself. They must now grapple with the impossible task of finding new entry points to the Yamuna.

Part IV: Grandfather

At the center of this swirling mass of ideas is one figure, whose memory is becoming increasingly hazy. He anchors this project just as he once anchored our family, and the social structure that they were a part of. His legacy is questionable, militaristic, tinged with violence. However, the more I think about the violence of erasure, of an entire village’s history gradually bulldozed over, the more I believe that it is not our place to pass judgment. Instead, I hope my work can pave the way for a more nuanced, perceptive look at yet place abandoned to time and memory.


My understanding of the environment is heavily influenced by my past experiences.

Growing up, frequent relocations courtesy of my fathers’ work left an indelible impression on my childhood. As I grew up, I innately felt a need to re-think ideas of home and belonging. As I delved deeper, it brought me closer to questions pertaining to my family history and in extension my own identity. All of it has unknowingly contributed to my perspective and my work, today.

While I began with photography, I slowly gravitated towards incorporating other mediums to build narratives. Such includes integrating collages, alternative printing techniques like cyanotypes and anthotypes, and also films. This flexibility serves as a playground for experimentation, allowing me to explore and create without limitations.

The significance of stillness in life became apparent to me through the works of filmmakers Edward Yang and Yasujiro Ozu. Additionally, the writings of David Wojnarowicz, Paash, and the photographic work of Carrie Mae Weems and LaToya Ruby Frazier have played a pivotal role in redirecting my focus inward, influencing the way I perceive and approach my work.