Inhabiting William Dalrymple's new photo series, 'The Historian's Eye', are spellbinding images of modern-day Pakistan, made while he was researching his forthcoming book 'The Anarchy'
William Dalrymple has spent the last three years documenting what was once the reign of the Mughal empire. He has been tracing its clamorous fall when it unwittingly fell into the hands of the militarized East India Company, and, subsequently, the British empire. “The Mughal empire, which had been one super-centralized, hyper-organized empire, suddenly fragmented overnight—like a mirror dropped from a first-floor window," says Dalrymple on the phone.
From his journeys (research trips for his forthcoming book, The Anarchy) emerged a collection of photographs. These visual offerings are now part of his photo-exhibition, The Historian’s Eye, which opens today at Akara Art, Mumbai (presented by Tasveer Gallery).
Set in the mid-18th and early 19th centuries, The Anarchy hinges on the tale of Shah Alam II, a tragic figure. Shah “is the ill-fated Mughal emperor" and “it is in travelling in his footsteps that most of these photographs were taken," writes Dalrymple in the introduction to The Historian’s Eye.
During his research, Dalrymple journeyed from Delhi to Awadh, across Bihar and Murshidabad, cantering down to Srirangapatna, and even travelling across the border to Pakistan. Tracing fallen kingdoms and ruined palaces, broken shrines and forgotten manuscripts, Dalrymple attempts to recreate a lost era. His photographs are laced with nostalgia, carrying an elegiac tone.
The images taken in Pakistan, in particular, are remarkably telling. Dalrymple’s black and white compositions are often conventional, depicting beautiful landscapes and frontal-shot portraits. But they can also be dark and brooding. Identified by lone monuments, overcast skies and intimidating bare landscapes—these stark, high-contrast images reflect a quiet fury. Each element in the frame churns drama. Some images are marked by intentional graininess—not always appealing, sometimes unsettling. And perhaps, arguably so, this is the drama Dalrymple wishes to orchestrate for his viewers—one that foretells the historical spectacle that will unravel in The Anarchy.
Consider the image titled Heading Home, Shyok Gorges, taken in Pakistan, which features a boy walking down a rugged hill. He’s dwarfed by the surrounding ranges and a macabre sky overhead. “In this picture, the little boy, who was heading home after reading the namaz in the masjid, is a tiny fragment of this vast landscape that looks somewhat like a baroque apocalypse happening in the sky," says Dalrymple. “When I saw it, I knew that this was a photograph I had to take."
If you look closely at the images shot in Pakistan, there is an uncanny juxtaposition of people and places—whether it is the bone-white sands of Gilgit, or the sprawling fertile landscape of Khaplu. Whether it is the coterie of truck painters from Abbottabad, who look challengingly at the viewer, or, in seeming contrast, the huddled Kalash women from Chitral who look away coyly—Dalrymple’s photographs of modern-day Pakistan are as accessible to the viewer as they are elusive.
His research trips took him across the country—from Lahore to Gilgit and other northern territories. “Before Partition, Lahore was very much the centre of not only Mughal India, but also Ranjit Singh’s kingdom," says Dalrymple. “From the Punjab plains, it continued right up to the Hindu Kush and further—and we forget this. Places like Skardu in Baltistan, Khaplu on the Indus and Shyok—regions no one remembers or goes to any more—were important centres of Indian civilization 200 years ago. "
Of the 51 photographs in the series, 13 were shot in Pakistan. These photographs, taken with a phone camera, will be published later in a book, also titled The Historian’s Eye. “The exhibition is quite different from my first show, The Writer’s Eye, which had pictures of America, Tuscany, Iran and Afghanistan," says Dalrymple. “This is a much more focused and precisely framed show about 18th century India...the extraordinary period of the Mughal empire."
Presented by Tasveer gallery and supported by Dauble (a digital art platform), the exhibition is on view from 13 April-3 May at Akara Art, First floor, 4/5, Churchill Chambers, Colaba, Mumbai. It will travel to Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Ahmedabad.
All images are under the copyright of William Dalrymple