2 min read.Updated: 22 Feb 2013, 06:16 PM ISTShreya Ray
An exhibition of photographs captures the last surviving relics of pre-modern India
Imagine the section in the Louvre, Paris, with Greek and Roman statues, only here, the statues are surrounded by dust and decay. Then there’s a billiard room in a picture, with tapestry grandly cascading down its walls, the table a heavily ornate and unrecognizable version of its slick European avatar. In another picture, a woman looks out of her high-ceilinged portico, the light filigreeing through the intricate railing. The British-Roman pillars could be straight out of the British Museum, except that it’s 20th century West Bengal.
There is the India of poverty, palaces and Rajput patriarchs, images most popular in the popular media, and there’s the other India, unearthed by British photographer Derry Moore during a 22-year-long project on India that began in 1976. In the Capital, Tasveer gallery is now presenting Evening Ragas, 60 images that focus not on the “Indianness" or the “Britishness" of the country but the grey in between: the hybrid.
“My initial idea had been to photograph some of the places that looked like they were going to disappear. In the event what fascinated me was not simply the places themselves but also the process of hybridization that was occurring," says Moore on phone from London. “A cultural osmosis was clearly discernible, that of British and European architecture on Indian buildings, and that of India and its climate, as well as its styles, on the British," he adds.
Photo Essay | Postcards from India
The owners of Marble Palace, Calcutta, 1977. Photographs by Derry Moore
Actor Soumitra Chatterjee in his dressing room in a Calcutta theatre, 1982
Moore’s work captures the peculiar and complex aesthetic of pre-modern India, says Nathaniel Gaskell of Tasveer, who curated the show. For instance, the gaudily opulent Marble Palace in Calcutta (now Kolkata), counterpointed with an image of the decrepit house where the three present owners of the palace now live: their crisp cotton dhotis versus the grease-stained walls. In Hyderabad, it was the nawab’s family, surrounded by chandeliers and palace finery, penniless. “There’s an ageing, crumbling splendour that shows that period of India so well," says Gaskell.
Moore travelled to Kolkata in 1977 to discover that the city described (with “relish and righteous indignation by many a journalist") as that of “the dead and the dying" also had the finest tradition of literature in the subcontinent. He recalls one of his favourite photography experiences—a Russian play in north Kolkata starring the Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee. “Nineteenth century Russia was transposed to Bengal in the 1960s, the similarity between both these contexts being very marked," he says.
Alongside the places, the other thing that continuously surprised him was the people. People were far more unique and atypical. He remembers shooting a group of traders in Rajasthan (“they were all like the characters in a play"), and the nawab’s son in Hyderabad, a boy who hated being photographed. Then there was the graceful Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, and the powerful Indira Gandhi in the years of the Emergency.
In 1976, recalls Moore, the telephone was in its infancy, television was barely known and anything imported was prohibitively expensive. “Life was more unpredictable and surprising. Though I did not realize it at the time, a transformation was beginning to overtake India," he says. In the decades that followed, India would become tech-savvy, buildings and people would all begin to display the same standards of “international mediocrity".
“To take most of these photographs today would be impossible," says Moore.
Evening Ragas is on till 5 March, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Gallery Art.Motif, F-213C, Lado Sarai (42664343), Delhi. The show will travel to Mumbai in May.