Moonlit night, Old Delhi, c. 1956.
Photographer: Richard Bartholomew
Between the lines
In Jhandewalan, named for the mandir with the fluttering flags, though perhaps better known for housing the headquarters of the RSS – and Aaj Tak – you can now view art. No, I’m not talking about the giant Hanuman statue at that gol chakkar. There is now a gallery in Jhandewalan. It holds exhibitions. The things contained within its walls have been certified as art.
I muttered something about Videocon Tower, refusing, as one sometimes does, to tell the autowala where exactly I wanted to go. There seemed something surreal about looking for an art gallery in Jhandewalan, even – or especially – with the aid of directions like “turn left after the cycle market” and “you’ll pass the old Naaz Cinema on your left”. It was even stranger, having traversed this dusty, post-industrial landscape, to find oneself entering a gleaming Hyundai showroom, all squares of steel and glass – and then to find inside the pristine white walls and solitary bench that one has come to expect of galleries, as well as that air of secular worshipfulness meant to keep non-believers out.
But the real surprise was what was on those walls: a series of photographs in black and white, many of them images of the city one had just left behind, beyond the glass doors. Images from half a century ago – from Connaught Place, Kashmere Gate, Asaf Ali Road.
The man behind the camera was called Richard Bartholomew, an art critic, poet and painter who fled his native Burma during the Japanese occupation of 1942 and made Delhi his home for the next 40-odd years. You look at these images of the city he made his own, and you wonder whether it is the outsider’s eye that makes the city come alive as it does here; makes it seem sometimes ethereal, sometimes ghostly. Just when you’re about to walk on to the next photograph, you notice something odd about the image in front of you – a shadow on the wall, two minuscule phantom figures in the stormy distance. In “Narinder Place on Parliament Street”, it seems a normal traffic-filled day, until you see the man lifting up his pajamas to wade carefully through the water towards the approaching bus. What you think of as a standard street scene in Delhi, then and now – construction workers lifting their loads in a haze of dust while a man cycles past – is transformed when you notice the figure outlined on the edge of the roof above, poised, stable, and yet on the brink. These are images with story: the possibility of story that emerges from the city, but will only so emerge when you step out of the flow of everything and look, carefully.
All taken up with looking and listening for stories, I leave the gallery without my phone – listening to the man walking by singing “O mere dil ke chain”. I walk to the Metro station, a long leisurely walk: looking. Then scrabble around in my bag; break into a run, suddenly panic-stricken; find the one remaining PCO and call my own number. It’s only when I’ve ensured my phone is safe that I hear the man behind me say, “Jaldi de de bhai, Dilli mein kisi ko time nahi hai aajkal.”
This column was published in Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 24, Feb 20 - Mar 6, 2009