In an interview with National Geographic Traveller India, when William Dalrymple was asked why, as a historian, does he think it is important to visit the places one is writing about, the renowned author replied saying it really matters if one's work "is rooted in geography and narrative, as mine is, and places and stories, in the sense I try to write my history." For him, it then becomes absolutely essential to know the landscape and to know the places he is writing about. "It seems to me if you spend your whole time in the library but don’t know the landscape, you are as much at sea as if you know the place but don’t know the primary sources," he added.
In his latest book, The Anarchy, published by Bloomsbury in September 2019, Dalrymple documents the rise of the East Indian Company in the most rivetting manner. As the publishing house, Bloomsbury puts it: The Anarchy is like "unfolding a timely cautionary tale of the first global corporate power." Emerged from a tiny building in London, five windows wide, three storeys high, the East India Company, slowly and stealthily, dug its anchors deep into the soil and soul of the Indian subcontinent.
Above: Khaplu, Pakistan | Archival Pigment Print | 15.5" x 20"
Also read on Firstpost: William Dalrymple on writing The Anarchy, his history of the East India Company's conquest of the subcontinent
A recent exhibition titled The Historian’s Eye at Delhi's Vadehra Art Gallery presents a photographic record of Dalrymple’s travels across the Indian subcontinent over the last two years while researching for The Anarchy. All those photographs have been encapsulated in the form of a photobook also titled The Historian's Eye that was published by HarperCollins India in 2018. Around 40 of those images have been put up on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery exhibition.
Dalrymple’s photographs — in black and white — chronicle a unique set of images of the places where art and history thrived in the 18th and 19th century, from not just India but also from modern-day Pakistan.
Above: Dawn over Skardu, Pakistan I | Archival Pigment Print | 11" x 20"
"I've been visiting all the places where this history took place – the battlefields and ruins, the mosques, Sufi shrines and temples, the paradise gardens and pleasure grounds, the barrack blocks and townhouses, the crumbling Mughal havelis and the palaces and forts." — William Dalrymple
"The Anarchy tells the remarkable story of how one of the world's most magnificent empires disintegrated and came to be replaced by a dangerously unregulated private company, based thousands of miles overseas and answerable only to its shareholders," Bloomsbury said in a statement.
With the 405-page book, being touted as Dalrymple's most ambitious work till date, the 54-year-old Scottish historian attempts to highlight the nexus between commercial and imperial power, and demonstrates how commerce and colonization have so often walked in lock-step.
Above: The swing, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi | Archival Pigment Print | 20" x 12"
Dalrymple writes that people in India and Britain still talk about the British conquering India, but informs that this phrase disguises a much more "ominous and complex reality". "Because it was not the British government that seized India in the middle of the eighteenth century, but a private company. India's transition to colonialism took place through the mechanism of a for-profit corporation, which existed entirely for the purpose of enriching its investors," he asserts.
He gives a detailed account of how the EIC defeated its principal rivals - the nawabs of Bengal and Avadh, Tipu Sultan's Mysore Sultanate and Maratha Confederacy – and rose from a humble trading company to a full-fledged Imperial power. He informs that the Company – the first multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate prototype for many of today's joint-stock corporations, and probably invented corporate lobbying.
Above: Rajon ki baoli, Mehrauli, Delhi | Archival Pigment Print | 12" x 20"
His last novel Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond came out in 2017. In the book, he argues that colonial Britain "consciously" made it into a "unique icon" and the "gem of gems", something that has now turned against them, with most Indians associating it with a symbol of "colonial loot". "Kohinoor becoming 'the gem of gems' was British creation. Bigging up their conquest, they consciously put it on show at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and made it into a symbol of what they had taken from India. That has now turned against the British themselves," he told the Press Trust of India in a December 2015 interview.
The Scottish writer notes that there were diamonds like the Dari-a-Nur or the Orlov, which were bigger in size than the Kohinoor, but have never been called for return.
He also has titles like White Mughals and The Last Mughal to his credit.
Above: Monsoon afternoon, Safdar Jung's Tomb, Delhi | Archival Pigment Print | 20" x 11"
Dalrymple is well-known and recognised for his writing, but photography was his first love, the artistic outlet of his youth.
With the 19th-century photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron as his great great aunt, the art of photography was certainly something that Dalrymple inherited. Beginning at the age of seven with a Kodak camera, he graduated to a Contax 35mm SLR with Carl Zeiss lens within a few years.
"Ever since I started writing, my photography languished and died," Dalrymple says. But, what took a back seat decades ago, with his writing flourishing over the years, resumed precedence while the author has been photographing profusely alongside researching for The Anarchy. For him, it was "completely thrilling" to foray into photography and "find something else" that he could do at the age of 50.
Above: Jantar Mantar, Delhi | Archival Pigment Print | 12" x 20"
In 2016, Dalrymple made a much-celebrated debut with the show titled The Writer's Eye. Over 50 black and white photographs, documented from his extensive travel across unfathomable regions of Afghanistan, Iran, Tibet, Ladakh and other parts of Central Asia, found place in the form of a photobook also titled, The Writer's Eye that was also published by HarperCollins India in the same year.
Above: Jantar Mantar, Jaipur | Archival Pigment Print | 20" x 13"
In the introduction of his second and latest photobook The Historian's Eye, he mentions: "I have travelled from the Red Fort and Jama Masjid of Delhi to the Company's headquarters in Calcutta, from the capital of the nawabs of Bengal in Murshidabad to as far south as Tipu Sultan's base of Srirangapatnam, a fortified island in the Cauvery river between Mysore and Bangalore."
In the process, he also explored the art and culture of the period, whether it was researching ittar - an essential part of the rituals of eighteenth-century court life - in Lucknow and Kannauj; or going up to Kashmir, the Punjab hills and the lower Himalayan valleys of Chamba, Guler and Kangra, to see where, arguably, the most beautiful of all Indian miniatures were painted.
Above: Early morning, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur I | Archival Pigment Print | 11.5" x 20"
The renowned Indian photographer Raghu Rai has written the foreword for Dalrymple's photobook where he remarks: "It seems that he has travelled the length and breadth of Rajasthan - a state of forts and palaces, photographing these majestic buildings up front, with bold elements in the foreground to enhance the depth of his image and embolden the viewer with yet another kind of perspective."
One of the remarkable facets about Dalrymple's photographs this time around is the fact that they are not shot on a high-end traditional camera but on his latest Samsung Edge camera phone, which in a way led to his re-discovery of the medium. Thus we can observe how Dalrymple’s approach to photography – facilitated by the mobility and immediacy of a camera phone – is intuitive and instinctive, while his aesthetic reflects the sensibility of polished, economical prose, resulting in stark, high-contrast images pared down to their essence.
Above: Early morning, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur II | Archival Pigment Print | 11.5" x 20"
Photographs are intrinsically bound to place and time, but Dalrymple’s images create a wrinkle in time that highlights an intermingling of the monumental past and fleeting present. Each photograph reveals a narrative tension within itself, between stillness and movement, history and reality. A boy skips down the passage, a cyclist turns at the gate, a hawk circles the dome and three generations of a Kalash family come together in a single frame: the past by turn is present, unveiled, subverted and transformed in the contemporary moment through the historian’s lens.
"I am surprised how dark and drastic some of the images are. My writing is not strictly dark. It seems to draw on a different side of me. It is a rather dark, more extreme vision of the world, but the photographs are darker," says Dalrymple.
Bleed image: Heading home, Shyok gorges, Pakistan | Archival Pigment Print | 11" x 20"
— With inputs from agencies. All images courtesy to Vadehra Art Gallery
William Dalrymple's exhibition The Historian’s Eye is open from 12 October to 31 October (Monday – Saturday | 10 am – 6 pm) at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53 Defence Colony, New Delhi – 110024