Italo Calvino writes in Invisible Cities: ‘Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.’

Delhi’s discourse is no secret. The rules to engage with it though, may indeed be absurd. From a sneeze, to an irregular bowel movement in the by-lanes of Parliament Street, Delhi’s tragedies have their own demography. Some play out behind curtained homes, where families try to clutch at light in the gloom. Others are ripped, torn shred by shameless shred on the front pages of newspapers. Despite having been painfully magnified to reveal the country’s sore veins for decades, Delhi remains — in more ways than one — elusive, eternally mysteriously and distant from both the past and the future. An exhibition of photos from three legendary archives, titled Delhi That Was, offers a similar perspective.


Above: Jama Masjid, 1979, by Raghu Rai.

The exhibition has been put together and curated by Ojas Art’s Anubhav Nath. “I have had a long association with Delhi myself and have witnessed it undergo significant change. But many things have stayed the same. One of my favourite photographs, for example, from the Mahatta archive, is of a flooded Connaught place from 1970. Incredibly, those same lanes get flooded to this day during the rains. So I guess it is what you make of it,” Nath says.


Here: Connaught Place Rain Flooding, 1970, Madan Mahatta.

The exhibition, as mentioned, brings together photos of the city from three archives: the bulk of the pictures on display are from the collection of Raghu Rai, while others have been taken from the archives of Madan Mahatta and architect Habib Rehman. (Mahatta’s studio, once a regal symbol of Connaught Place, itself turned 100 in 2015. In one of the photos you can see the studio in its old shape, a kind of time-extended sanctum of space.)


Seen here: Connaught Place, 1951, by Madan Mahatta.

It’s easy to surmise the sentimental value such a collection of photos must hold for those who have lived through the Delhi of the past. One of Rai’s photos shows a farmer ploughing a field, with Humayun’s Tomb looming in the background. It’s both strange and scary: the effect a historical lens can have on roads you cross every day. Therein lies (perhaps) the value of heritage, the idea to preserve some of it, if not as evidence then as witness. How ironic that a tomb seems more alive than the hideously tall structures that have come to symbolise Delhi’s evolution.


In this image: Wheat thrashing, Humayun’s tomb, 1966, by Raghu Rai.

“One thing we must understand is that Delhi has a lot of Babudom, an innate tendency to take things lightly, that ‘chalta hai’ mentality that isn’t there in Mumbai. Maybe because it is the country’s capital, maybe because of the bureaucracy, but that is one of the reasons behind its hard corners I feel,” Nath says.

Rehman’s pictures, especially of buildings dating to the Corbusier wave, are interesting, while Mahatta’s are particularly intriguing from a political perspective. Rai on the other hand, photographs landscapes not through the palette of colour, but time. Rai probably had a thing for Ambassador cars, for they keep spinning into frames, or brood alone in the sanctuary of deafening space. Space that is impossible now to find.


Above photo: Patel Bhavan, 1973, by Habib Rahman.

“Every city has to change. I don’t think you can continue to be the same. One of the most significant changes in Delhi, for example, has been the Metro. It has become an equaliser, and it has perhaps made it possible to see the city even better. I don’t take my car to old Delhi, I prefer the Metro,” Nath says.

Delhi That Was has coincidentally opened at a time when Lutyens Delhi is being prospected for a revamp. “We must understand that the Parliament was built more than a century ago. If it is proving difficult to function out of an old structure then it makes sense to relocate and rebuild. But not at the expense of the old structure. That building is part of history, of our heritage, it has to stay,” Nath says.


This photo: A view of the central vista from Rashtrapati Bhavan, 1990, by Raghu Rai.

“A significant number of images from the exhibition are suggestive, but inconclusive, easy to romanticise but impossible in hindsight to aspire to. Modernity is ridiculously savage when it comes to tying that troublesome knot between means and ends," he adds.

It’s hard to say what this glimpse of Delhi’s past might trigger in those who can only see it through the prism of Rehman, Mahatta and Rai. For those who have lived it, it must be a nostalgic hop to times when this city was still a sheet of bulk fabric, waiting enthusiastically to be stitched in by India’s future. Somewhere along the way that future found its own wind, other threads to tie itself too.

What remains of Delhi now is a glossary of patches and worn piercings and the intimate, yet pitiful idea that once, a darn good yarn of life, culture and luxury passed through them. But what town is really safe from being written over, what person wants nothing more than to be remembered? Like these pictures, maybe even we have all just come here to be forgotten.

Delhi That Was is on display at Ojas Art, Delhi. See more images from the exhibition here —


114B Curzon Road Hostels, 1967, by Habib Rahman.


Indrani Portrait, 1953, by Habib Rahman.


MF Husain, 1956, by Habib Rahman.


Inder Gujral, Indrani with Ram, Satish Gujral, MF Husian, Charles Faburi, 1957, by Habib Rahman.


Rabindra Bhavan, 1961, by Habib Rahman.


Dust storm, Red Fort, 1986, by Raghu Rai.


Humayun's tomb, 1966, by Raghu Rai.


Tilling land, Palam airport, 1970, by Raghu Rai.


Breezy girl, Humayun’s tomb, 1973, by Raghu Rai.


Crossing railway track, opposite Humayun’s tomb, 1968, by Raghu Rai.


Main gate, Humayun’s tomb, 1966, by Raghu Rai.


Zoo entrance, 1978, by Madan Mahatta.


Glider being towed over Qutab Minar, 1972 by Madan Mahatta.


Hussain painting cinema hoarding, 1974 by Madan Mahatta.


Jantar Mantar Delhi, 1955, by Madan Mahatta.


Queen Elizabeth and Dr Rajinder Prasad through Connaught Place, 1961, by Madan Mahatta.