JUNE 2001- Contents
Travel & Adventure
the-south-asian.com June 2001
PHOTO FINISH FOR A DELHI BOOK
Isidore Domnick Mendis
When a French photographer and a Belgian art historian decided to translate William Dalrymple's 'City of Djinns' in pictures, the result was a collection of 49 wonderful black and white photographs of Delhi - Dalrymple's 'City of Djinns'.
It was an unusual meeting place for two total strangers. The courtyard of the French School in Delhi became venue for a fruitful friendship between a Belgian and a French lady. Art historian Nathalie Trouveroy is the wife of the Belgian ambassador to India and photographer Agnes Montanari has followed her medical doctor husband from Algeria, Somalia and Oman to Papua New Guinea, England, Bangladesh and finally India.
Their daughters attended the same class in the French school and soon the morning chats of the two mothers grew into friendship. Says Nathalie, " Agnes loves photography, I love art and history and we both love Dalrymple's book on Delhi, City of Djinns. Something there was begging to happen!"
For the uninitiated City of Djinns has become a must-read for all foreigners visiting Delhi. The author of the book, William Dalrymple came to India in 1989 on a four year assignment as correspondent of the London-based newspaper The Spectator. A gifted writer who had won the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize at the age of 22, he simultaneously began researching for a travel-based book on India.
The result was City of Djinns, one of the best contemporary work on modern India. Trevor Fishlock, writing in The Daily Telegraph said, "…much of the book's strength lies in Dalrymple's skill in peeling the historical onion and showing how new Delhi resonates with the old…A splendid tapestry…"
Recalls Nathalie, " I had just arrived in Delhi when a friend gave me the City of Djinns to read and my love for Delhi started there and then." When she met up with Agnes and discovered she too was an ardent fan of Dalrymple, an idea was born. Why not turn the book into a photo album?
" Without a clue as to how to achieve this, the two approached Dalrymple who now stays in Delhi's Nizamuddin area. Says Nathalie, " He was amazingly gracious about the proposal. E-mails went back and forth, he gave us his blessing, helpful advice and all the right phone numbers. Slowly the project started taking shape."
As a historian Nathalie has always taken a special interest in the Asian art. Besides being the Belgian ambassador's wife she works as a translator for major museums and publishers of art books in Belgium. Agnes who is trained as a lawyer is a keen photographer with a preference for black-and-white pictures. She says, " Colours can distract the eye from the essence of the subject---especially in a country like India."
The two ladies began by researching on Delhi. They read all the books on the historical city they could lay hands on---from French naturalist Victor Jacquemont to Francois Bernier a Frenchman who was a personal physician of Aurangzeb, and from Ibn Batuta, a Moroccan who stayed in Tughlaqabad in 1830, to Khushwant Singh and finally William Dalrymple's perception of the capital of India.
" Dalrymple's City of Djinns was our obvious choice as we wanted to capture Delhi through the eyes of a contemporary foreigner like us." says Agnes. The project was conceived in May 2000 and the two started their real work in September. It was sponsored by the French embassy and two French companies.
For the first three months they read and re-read the book and made lists of places to photograph. Agnes zeroed in on 50 photo opportunities according to the book and Nathalie was to be the matchmaker between images and words and was to translate the extracts in French.
Says Nathalie, " I carried the books and the maps and the water bottle. We saw temples and tombs and markets and ruins, met princesses, taxi drivers, and exorcists, attended partridge fights, stayed for tea in a graveyard and heard lots of wonderful stories. We usually came back from our expeditions thirsty, dirty and very happy with everything we had seen and the people we had met and grew to love Delhi even more."
Once the job was done the two started going back and forth between the photographs and the book, trying to capture the essence of a chapter. Finding the right match was a real joy and a challenge for the two ladies.
Says Nathalie, " The Rashtrapati Bhawan put us in a quandry. Agnes loved the picture she had taken of horsemen seen through the gate---but anyone who saw this picture thought it was of the Buckingham Palace in London. I felt the book conveyed a different meaning. So we went back for a re-shoot."
The two also added some other sites, which were less important in the book but too important to be left out altogether. For example, says Nathalie, " Qutub Minar is echoed by a quote from Ibn Batuta that does not appear in the City of Djinns. This collection is an outcome of choices we made about images that best reflect Delhi."
49 Black & white photographs
The result has been 49 wonderful black and white photographs exhibited earlier this year at the Visual Art Gallery at Delhi's India Habitat Centre. The quality, composition and imagination that has gone into the pictures drew an ecstatic response from art connoiseurs.
But at the end of the amazingly successful project there is a sense of despair in the two creative ladies. " The people of Delhi don't have a sense of belonging. They don't appreciate their rich heritage. A number of the forts and havelis are lying in ruins," says Agnes.
What they noticed was a complete lack of cleanliness and insensitivity to the surroundings. The filth and dirt surrounding some of the monuments like Roshnara's Tomb (daughter of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan) at Roshanara Garden was most distressing. " One has to preserve the past to confidentally march into the future," says Agnes.
But that apart, the book was a joy to translate on the film roll. " We modestly hope," says Nathalie, " these photographs will inspire more people to go out and discover Delhi's lesser known treasures for themselves. The city deserves it."
And so does its cultural heritage that is being laid waste by neglect and vandalism.
|Copyright © 2000 [the-south-asian.com]. Intellectual Property. All rights reserved.|