Capital Muse

Art curator Ina Puri revisits Delhi through photographs that capture its myriad moods

It was an early spring morning, about three decades ago, when I first saw the Parliament House. It was my first visit to Delhi and the stately building had seemed like a many splendoured apparition; immense and solid. That first impression of the scope and ambition of Delhi has stayed with me ever since.

I found an echo of my impression of the city in acclaimed photographer Raghu Rai’s iconic shot of the Parliament House. The angle of Rai’s camera reflected my view and I was struck anew by the sheer architectural grandeur of the structure. As it stands with the Indian flag flying on its crown, there is an air of hushed expectancy as the horses stand in a row, a twitch of the ears or a mild stomp of the hoof betraying their impatience as they await a cavalcade or the start of an official programme.

Over the years, I have witnessed Delhi seep into artistic consciousness; there are several canvases and photographs by celebrated artists that pay homage to the city’s intensity and vibrancy. Photographer Raghu Rai’s roving lens seeks out the mundane in the city and turns it into a visual narrative – for instance, a sea of people navigating their way along the labyrinthine lanes that criss-cross Delhi, as it wakes up to the muezzin’s call in some areas and to the sound of conch shells in others. It is perhaps this ephemeral beauty of the city of djinns that never fails to beguile and enchant the painter, the poet and the photographer.

Ina Puri Photography

When I came to live in the city, a few years after my first visit, I fell in love with its wide avenues, Shanti Path, the leafy Lodhi Garden, Humayun’s Tomb, Red Fort, Jahanpanah, Hauz Khas and Tughlaqabad Fort. Master colourist Paresh Maity reflects a similar enchantment with Delhi. A look at his black-and-white photographs reveals his interpretation of what lies at the heart of the city. A stunning glimpse of the Qutab Minar, for instance, seems to have been captured with brush strokes. The landscape is defined with nuanced gradations of black and white, heightening the capital’s dramatic appeal. The charming sights and sounds of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi or Purani Dilli entice both the city resident and tourist alike. But nothing I had heard about it could have prepared me for the sight I beheld when I first visited the oldest and the busiest marketplace in the city.

It was March and Holi was near. Purani Dilli’s streets were dotted with women in bright ghaghra-choli selling mounds of gulal and pichkari. Carts of bangle-sellers, shops lined with sequinned salwarkameez- dupattas, juttis and parandis jostled for space, along with sweetmeat shops and little eateries serving piping hot pakoras and parathas… Though Chandni Chowk has changed since then, its vibrant colours, flavours, joy and rustic charm never fail to impress. Even today, Old Delhi transports you to a bygone era.

Iskcon Temple Photo by Ina Puri

The colours and spirit of the city seem to have rubbed off on photographer Amit Mehra’s collection of images titled Twilight of My City, which evocatively recalls memories of Old Delhi. Says Mehra, “The vast grounds in front of Red Fort used to be our regular playground and as children, we could guess the hours of the day by the call of the azaan that reverberated from Jama Masjid. Our ancestral haveli located in Old Delhi’s Ballimaran area remained our home for years. My photographs attempt to resurrect those times.” Unusually, his nostalgic associations are not sepia-tinted – the pictures are vivid and lively.

Delhi’s charming hues have been framed by photographer Dinesh Khanna in the form of colourful collages. They capture, with an expert’s precision, the minutiae and trivia of the commonplace. Talking about a particular photograph titled Delhi ka Haat, the photographer says: “In recent years, Delhi has been overtaken by malls and fancy shops. However, tucked away in the colonies and the bylanes of the city are weekly haats, where the common man shops. The stalls seem ephemeral, appearing for a day and then disappearing for a week, but the effect of their colour lingers on.”

So what is it about Delhi that fascinates the artist? Is it a coincidence or do creative minds deliberately choose to delve into Delhi’s past that is both different from and akin to the present? This is perhaps what defines the capital: a coexistence of eras, lifestyles and sensibilities.

– The author is a well-known art curator and the views expressed in the article are her own

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