An old man, wrapped in a purple lungi, sits stooped over the steps of a ghat leading to a river. His body ravaged by time, the outline of his bones peep through the skin on his back, he remains focused on washing a saffron-coloured garment. With each successive wash, the saffron from the garment bleeds into the water, colouring it. Symbolising the fragility of life and the environment, this video, titled ‘Yudhisthira Washing’, was created by Delhi-based artist Atul Bhalla around 2007, as part of his ongoing Yamuna Project, chronicling the degradation of the river. However, it gains new significance given the current political scenario. “The work was inspired from the Yaksha Prashna portion of the Mahabharata — a series of questions between Yudhisthira and the Yaksha of a lake — which is open to multiple meanings,” says Bhalla, who has over the years worked extensively with water and its centrality. Another photographic work by him shows words floating on the Yamuna that together read ho raha hai aaj bhi wahi sab (the same thing still happens even today).

These works are part of an ongoing exhibition titled ‘Degenerate’ in Delhi. Curated by Blessy Augustine, it also features the works of Ruby Chishti, Minal Damani, Jagannath Panda, Ashim Purkayastha and B Ajay Kumar Sharma. In their own ways, the artists comment on the tensions of life in the megalopolis which always seems near bursting point.

On a lighter note, the Orissa-born, Delhi-based Panda’s set of photographs and sculptural work looks at the man-nature struggle and the constant jostling for space. One may be familiar with his larger-than-life peacocks and golden deer, but this time he has chosen to enlarge one of the more marginal creatures of our urban landscape — the snail. Panda has created a miniature house, complete with a garden and tiny furniture. A toy snail larger than the house crawls up its walls, creating a real Alice in Wonderland moment. Another set of photographs by him positions a bovine in the midst of construction work. “I shot these in 2011, near my studio, where a lot of construction was happening. The whole idea was to capture the cow at the centre of the construction work, as if seeing the world from the animal’s point of view. In the photos the cow appears larger than the structure — the same principle was applied for the snail. Essentially it is to say that living beings are bigger and more important than edifices,” says Panda.

Another eye-catching work at the exhibition is a large canvas by Ashim Purkayastha. Migrating north easterners are set against a desolate rust-coloured landscape, with the carcass of a bull in the foreground. Upon closer examination the tiny figures of the north easterners seem to be taken from media images of the nude women who protested outside the Assam Rifles headquarters in Manipur after the alleged rape of a young woman by army officers. “I don’t see myself just as an artist, but as an activist,” says Purkayastha, whose thrust has been on the “ecological rape” of his homeland in Assam. In this instance, the rape of the Manipuri girl by army jawans becomes a metaphor for the pillage and de-forestation of Assam. “My work is not nostalgic but takes on the problems of an industrialising society head-on,” he adds.

One may be slightly startled by artist Ruby Chishti’s life-like sculptures of crows placed right next to Purkayastha’s vivid canvas, and perhaps that was the intention. The black and grey birds appear like silent sentries or scavengers waiting to peck at the remains of human figures. Pakistani-born Chishti is based in New York and known for her soft sculptures created out of fabric and natural materials like twigs. Her works embody a feminine energy that is fragile yet tenacious. The crows, which might appear sinister at first, succeed in underscoring these oppositional qualities.

Elaborating on the transient nature of human and animal life, B Ajay Sharma’s delicate prints on paper document the atrophy of a fish, from the moment it is pulled out of the sea till it transforms into a mere skeletal spectre. In ‘Piece, piece and pieces’, he uses a sliced papaya as a metaphor for the fragmentation and isolation of human society. The papaya slice contains a vignette of human experiences, from women harvesting rice to vendors at their vegetable and fruit stalls.

“I am interested in engaging with ideas around ambiguity and the contradictions of life and death, being and non-being,” says the Banaras-born, Delhi-based artist, who experiments with both mediums of painting and photography.

In essence, this exhibition provides a sharp, eye-opening commentary on the fragility of human and animal life that appears exacerbated by our urban excesses.

(Degenerate is on at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, till June 17.)

(Georgina Maddox is a Delhi-based art writer)