"In the beginning, there was stillness. Fear and foreboding permeated the air as the world retreated into a shell. The lockdown, combined with self-isolation, was our only defence against COVID-19. What I saw then was an emptiness suspended in time, and the city as a story without adjectives." — Parul Sharma.
Delhi went under lockdown on 23 March this year, much like the rest of the country. Twelve days later, on 4 April, exhausted by the doom and gloom on television and the endless babel of voices on social media, Delhi-based fine art photographer Parul Sharma — armed with a press ID — got into her car and drove across her city to check for herself as to what was happening to and in it. Like her parents, she too had grown up in the capital. She, however, could never have imagined that one day, she would witness her hometown screeching to a sudden halt — a "horror show" that the photographer would go on to chronicle. Sharma captured the "lives paused, lives lost and lives regained" in her city due to a pathogen, which was somehow comforted in its own shadows.
Above: Delhi’s permanent rulers, Rhesus monkeys, recaptured North Avenue mocking the virus and the residents who cowered inside their government flats
"I did not start capturing images of Delhi under lockdown with a book in mind. Photography is a passion and pursuit in itself — of chasing that perfect frame to tell that unavoidable story about a cataclysmic event of history that needs to be recorded as a testament of our times in this city," Sharma says. "I was out every day humbled by the pristine beauty of Delhi in all its solitary and proud glory in April and then in May and June, I was crushed by the horror of deaths — in crematoriums, burial grounds, and cemeteries — and I was stunned by the apathy the city showed by living in denial about the plight of migrant labourers stuck without a ticket back to their homes or a meal in their belly. The callous abandonment of Delhi’s migrant labourers was the most tragic simile of our time," she adds.
Sharma saw the story of Delhi under lockdown unfold — from its stoic stillness in the initial days to the gradual state of absolute disarray due to the uprooting of migrant labourers, rush of ambulances, and the struggle for holding on to life. From the empty vistas of Raisina Hills to the solitary columns of Connaught Place; from the mournful monuments of Old Delhi to the eerie quietness of Khan Market, and from the fearless frontline workers at the COVID-19 wards of AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) to the lonely and mournful Dilli Gate Kabristan — what Sharma saw was the "frozen reality of the life we had left behind while hiding from the virus."
Above: Aerial view, Connaught Place
"Human memory can be carelessly short," observes the photographer, and further says that the pandemic and its resultant lockdown has taught the people of Delhi some hard-hitting lessons. "Do not take life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for granted. A virus that geographically spared no part of the globe, and infected rich and poor, black and white alike, made us realise that the world is one when fighting a universal war against a disease, or finding the cure for it."
Above: Waiting for hours to fill water. Where and when does it all end?
In these months of living under lockdown, what and how much has the city changed? Or has there been no significant mutation in Delhi's social fabric? Sharma points out a number of tangible changes that she has noticed in the past few months. "The new work-from-home culture has been adapted as easily into our work genes and has proved to be as productive and meaningful in our lives as the earlier ethos of office culture and long hours of commute. Our children, already conquerors of the internet, took to online education as if they were born into it, and healthcare through video calls made medicine and therapy available instantly and affordably. Bicycling became the new status symbol of transportation in a city obsessed with its in-your-face Bentleys and Range Rovers," says Sharma, before adding, "Most importantly, Delhi transformed itself from an arrogant, greedy, and power-obsessed city of 'who you know', to a kind, caring, and gentle city."
Above: A COVID-19-positive girl child in isolation at the COVID Care facility at the Commonwealth Games Complex near Akshardham Temple keeps her spirits up by playing with her toys
In her book, Dialects of Silence, Sharma quotes the legendary war photographer Robert Capa: "If your picture is not good enough, you are not close enough." Upon seeing her pictures, one cannot deny that Sharma took to Capa's words as her dictum, and what came of it were, as she puts it, her "closest encounters with the sighs, solitude, sorrows and consolations of a despairing city." In June, seeing some of her pictures that she had put up on Instagram, Pramod Kapur of Roli Books got in touch with her and suggested doing a book on Delhi under lockdown. Sharma agreed to it, only on the condition that Kapur curate the collection for publication. Within a few days, Cosmo Films offered to supply the film on which Parul's black and white photographs would be printed.
Exactly five months since her initial journey, on 4 September, the photographer's book Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown was released.
Above: Plastic-wrapped bodies came, day in and day out, at the Nigambodh Electric Crematorium (above), the Muslim Burial Ground and the Christian Cemetery. The horror and sadness that followed the sheer aloneness of the bodies, made June the cruellest month.
"There is a story and lesson in every part of this city," says Sharma, "which has survived conquerors, invaders, marauders and rulers, and retained its never-changing patina of architectural character with its unique confluence of Hindu, Mughal, colonial and modern architecture." While Delhi is often ranked amongst the most beautiful capitals of the world, it has never been given its due credit in the truest sense, says Sharma. "It was indeed the pandemic that forced us to look out and look inward to realise the greatness of a city we had taken for granted."
— All images courtesy Roli Books from Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown by Parul Sharma