The River Project – a flowing convergence of new connections

By Mahesh White Radhakrishnan and Sumathi Krishnan  

The beautiful mild winter weather made the day perfect for The River Project which took place on the shore of what we know as the Georges River in Dharug and Dharawal country, southwest Sydney. This event took the form of a walk into spaces of ceremony, performance and dialogue, bringing together communities which have an active connection to the river, with a strong focus on First Nations, Mandean and Indian cultures. 

We were blessed with the sprinkling of waters as part of a healing Water Ceremony led by Dharug elder and artist Aunty Julie Bukari Webb with Jannawi Dance Clan (led by Peta Strachan) accompanied by yidaki (didgeridoo) and clapsticks. This was a wonderful moment of performance, participation and contemplation bringing us into the space. It’s easy to draw parallels with other kinds of water-based rituals, from Catholic holy water rituals to the Hindu blessing with thirtham with which we’re both familiar, showing the salience of water across faith traditions for a long time.

Held outdoors, the movement through space made this curated performative experience special and emphasised the connection to the river which was nearly always within sight along with the trains not too far on the other side evoking a suburban reality. This was part of what made the experience powerful – reminding us of the colourful and rich possibilities of a Saturday afternoon stroll in suburban parklands!

Photography Sumathi Krishnan

The walking audience was treated to performances by Hamsa Venkat’s Samskriti Dance and accompanied by Carnatic flautist Venkhatesh Sritharan later joined by Carnatic singer Namrata Pulapaka with Amey Uppal on the dholak engaging in common activities of Indian folk who live by the river, use water to clean the front of their houses and draw a kolam as they set themselves into a positive path each morning or washing and dyeing clothes by the river.

Photography: Sumathi Krishnan

The connection to Country and river dance continued with Aunty Julie and Jannawi performers performing their circular formations carrying sticks and dancing in harmony all evoking the significance of water and connection to Country.

Photography Sumathi Krishnan

Punctuating these we were led to very edge of the river, to the site of a beautiful Mandean cultural vignette with clay figurines made by artist Yuhana Nashmi accompanied by the sounds of songs in Arabic and Mandaic, a variety of Aramaic sung by Afnan Amoor. Rivers play a significant role in the culture and beliefs of Mandeans. Now resident in NSW Mandeans are a displaced community from Iraq who perform their baptisms in fresh flowing rivers.

Photography Sumathi Krishnan

There was an unexpected display of water skiing by NSW Barefoot Water Ski club at what is one of the best water-skiing spots in the country by two Olympic Sports Champions who performed their acrobatics effortlessly on the surface of the water.

Photography Sumathi Krishnan

A touching participatory ceremony of commitment to looking after the land led by Aunty Julie and the Jannawi dancers continued. We are to keep our promise to country, walkers pledged by placing clayed hands on the surface of a gum tree alongside the walking path. An important moment, this gentle act was a reminder that we must tread carefully light footed leaving a minimal footprint on Mother Earth.

Credit photography Sumathi Krishnan

What followed then was a fascinating talk by Georges Riverkeeper, Robert Dixon on micro-invertebrates living in the river. Did you know that Platypus now thrive in this River? Although hard to spot, we were told that DNA studies confirm that the shy platypus watches and listens from the river bed below.

As the orange hues of a wintry sun ebbed behind the clouds, we were led back to the sounds of Mandean chants and Carnatic ragas by Namrata Pulapaka, sung from a boat along the river to an outdoor theatre space, symbolising the burning ghats along the Ganga River in Varanasi in India much revered by Hindus. Visually impactful and evocative, the burning pier was placed towards the middle of the river.

Photography Sumathi Krishnan

This was broken gently by the sounds of the flute and the vocals of Namrata Pulapaka and Venkhatesh Sridharan until a still figure of a dancer in red, Hamsa Venkat and her group of dancers from Samskriti School of Dance, moved in synchronised rhythm to a collaborative finale with Jannawi Group.

Jiva and all the performers brilliantly brought together parallel worlds in a rich participatory intercultural experience artistically grounded in environment and promoting a sense of community. It was a brilliant and positive project for the Biennale to support.

The connected exhibition/installation at Casula Powerhouse, Same River Twice created by Zanny Begg in collaboration with STARTTS and Jiva Parthiban, is in the form of an interactive video featuring multiple stories extolling the power rivers have over our lives. Reflecting on a personal loss, we hear Jiva act, dance and speak about his personal growth and connection to the Georges River, where he spread a handful of the ashes of his dear brother-in-law, as now permitted by Council. He shows us his way of connecting to the river through this film and installation work of Zanny Begg’s work.

Editor’s Notes:

rivus was a month-long event across many venues, performances and multi-art installations produced by Biennale of Sydney this year.

One among them, proudly, was this event held at the Casula Powerhouse, along the now clean Georges River. Commissioned for the Biennale, presented by STARTTS and creatively directed by Jiva Parthiban, it weaved Dharug, Mandean, Hindu ceremonies, traditions, cultures and water sports that coexist near the Georges River today.

The two hours walk and talk along the river could be critiqued for being tokenistic of our immense traditions past. But it sent an important symbolic message, of coexistence and subsistence, as cultures collide, yet stand apart. Dare I ask, where to from here? Or is this just another drop in the ocean, soon forgotten ?