Delhi Dialogues: An exhibition of archival photos traces everyday images of the city, and how it has changed
The Delhi Visual Archive, being built by the Centre for Community knowledge, Ambedkar University is a fine example of reclaiming this lesser seen – quite literally — side of Delhi's narrative.
One of the fallouts of the tragedy of the Partition was the unprecedented change the city of Delhi witnessed. A shelter for refugees, the city became home to migrants and runaways alike. Delhi’s expansion, its growth and even its infrastructure calamities are the makings of a wave of movement. Not only did refugees and migrants change the way the capital moved forward in history, but have come to define its many eccentricities. Unlike Mumbai, a city often eulogised as a being with a heart and soul, Delhi has unfortunately been restricted to its political derivates. The tragedy of partition, for example, overshadows the unintended fillip it gave to local businesses in the city. The political and ideological battles that divide have also undermined what has always been key to Delhi’s rise and survival – its capacity to play host to multiple cultures. The Delhi Visual Archive, being built by the Centre for Community knowledge, Ambedkar University is a fine example of reclaiming this lesser seen – quite literally — side of the narrative.
The Delhi visual archive began collecting photos back in 2013, as an attempt to find a Delhi that is neither documented as a political specimen, or merely the tragic fallout of the disintegration of one. “The archive began back in 2013. The goal then, and even now, was to find Delhi in its everyday image, and how that image has changed over the years. Not necessarily a political document, but a more candid, more casual view of Delhi, and its people," Bhavin Shukla, curator of the exhibition Delhi Dialogues, which is showcasing some of these photos, says. The archive, Shukla says, has close to 6,000 images now, spanning the years from 1930 to 1990. A major chunk of it is made up of photos by one Lala Narain Prasad. “Prasad was a chartered accountant who went around clicking photos starting from the 1940s. He has clicked some 2,800 photos, all of which are now part of the archive. He approached the centre to ask if they could basically hold onto them after he would be gone, and that is where the idea for the archive took seed,” Shukla says.
More recently, the archive has expanded or rather turned organic in its process to collect photographs. “We are now trying to collect photos from families from neighbourhood museum. Our website has an option to submit photos where you can contribute. The idea is to be organic and not look at history in strict terms,” Shukla says. The archive is unique, particularly for its lack of metadata, or precise information about its photographs. “Most of the photos in the archive do not have information about the people in it. In most, you cannot even identify the monuments. Even the Yamuna doesn’t look like anything it is today. It gives you an idea about the way there aren’t any set narratives for the city, especially those that are personal and capture the everyday,” Shukla says. The photos are presented alongside chosen text from books that talk about the city, as a way of offering choice perspectives on it. In more ways than one, looking at a photo that has no known history attached to it other than the fact that it is set in the past in an older version of the capital helps one ‘find’ the city again.
The capital has been the centre of so much political churn and turmoil that it finds itself glued to the kind of crest its people can hardly live up to or live beside. It hurts to be in Delhi as much as it hurts to be Delhi, perhaps. Given the context of that perpetual burden, the approach of Delhi Dialogues feels refreshing. “Delhi has had two narratives — one that is the national narrative, the city as the capital of the country and the other as the city that lives in its everyday moments. We were sure we wanted to capture the latter. No one can deny the city its place as the political centre, but it misses out on the everyday a lot,” Shukla says. Photos of families enjoying a picnic out in the sun, or that of a boy standing in front of his school, Shukla believes, are piercing reminders of the moments that though relatable, have somehow been buried under the headstrong stories of Delhi’s socio-political history. “There is a photo of a tangawallah that we obviously do not know the story of. But Aravind Adiga has written about a community of tangawallahs that had to move from the banks of river Yamuna because of the smell of decaying bodies from the cremation sites on the banks. There we get a slice of life, that would otherwise remain missing for most of us,” he adds.
Perhaps it is apt that an archive like this is only possible through the work of amateurs, people who held up a camera not to document the city itself, but the personal lives of its people. And in that lowbrow moment of personal reflection, a new story of the city emerges in retrospect. When we talk of heart, Delhi — though known for its poisonous tongue – has a pretty big one beating on the inside. If you look closely at the pictures of the expanding Delhi Visual Archive, you’ll see it has always had a bit of soul too, one that everyone likes to claim it doesn’t.
All images courtesy: Delhi Visual Archive (Centre for Community Knowledge)
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