The rooftops of Delhi

 

 

During this period of social isolation, frequently referred to in the contemporary (and telling) militaristic parlance as ‘lockdown’, I’ve been thinking much about outside space. Photographs from across the world show people gathering on balconies, separate but conversing, singing and playing music the way that they used to do in more normal times. This additional use of personal and public space brought me back to Delhi, the city with whom I’ve had a long and complicated relationship.

When I first started to work there in the mid-90s, which in the evolution of that city seems like a very long time ago, the majority of residential areas were restricted by urban planners to just two stories. Delhi was, for the most part, a low-rise city with a human scale. People in middle-class areas inevitably used their roof space to build a self-contained room where their domestic help would live. By the time I arrived, the ever-resourceful Delhi wallahs had decided that these quaint little structures known as barsati (from the Hindi word – barsaat – for rain) were quite chic and started to advertise them for rent as an evocative, cheap and central place for urbanites. Despite me looking at a couple (I think in Defence Colony…) I never did take the plunge, fearful as I was of being drowned in my bed during monsoon or being swept away in the loo (the dry, seasonal Delhi wind – not the temperamentally plumbed convenience connected to the erratic Delhi sewers). I remember them being terrifically popular with an arty crowd and I’d sometimes be invited to parties where foreign journalists would hold court in them, serving imported drinks on tiny tables – the decor all Diwali fairy-lights, damp-mottled walls and antique Bollywood film posters. Apparently MF Hussain (about whom I wrote about some years ago here) lived in one in Jangpura as did Arundhati Roy in Lajpat Nagar. Anita Desi features one in her short story The Rooftop Dwellers

The transformation of Delhi from sleepy government city to a gaudy, monied and dangerous metropolis (see Rana Dasgupta’s Capital) meant that the barsati has pretty much had its day. The two-floor Delhi dwelling is long gone, replaced by a Neoliberal architecture of individualism and show: multi-storied and gated. The city, seemingly desperate to forget its past (contrasted with today’s Britain that still clings to it’s own re-invented one) is unrecognisable. It occurred to me however, just how much I’d stood on these rooftops over the years. From traditional musicians in Old Delhi to The Coffee House to a friend of a friend’s place overlooking Mehrauli forest, they always felt a way to rise above; to overlook – to observe – away from the frenetic noise and bustle.

As I look out on these uncertain, pandemic nights, coming to terms with what was and what yet might be in a very altered world, I think back years to the Delhi that I once knew – my Delhi – and wish I’d have rented that barsati after all.

 

Traditional musicians play on a roof top in Chandni Mahal, Old Delhi. Once patronised by the Mughal rulers many now scrape a living playing weddings and social functions. Violinist Afzaal Zahoor leads Zeeshan Ahmad, a singer, Shankat Qureshi (tabla) and Shakeel Ahmad (Harmonia).

 

Radhika and her neighbour Saroj on her roof garden in one of Delhi’s largest slum’s Kusumpur Pahari. The settlement, built more than thirty years ago has no running water or sewage facilities but despite the residents modest situation, many have beautified their homes with plants and flowers. New Delhi, India

 

Bela Gupta, Secretary of the All India Kitchen Garden Association and her dog in her roof garden. New Delhi.

 

Boys fly a kite over rooftops in Nizamuddin, a largely Muslim area that contains many important and venerated tombs of saints and holy men. New Delhi.

 

A monkey walks between tables of customers on the roof terrace of the Indian Coffee House, New Delhi.

 

A view over Mehrauli from a roof terrace, New Delhi.

 

The last of the light – about twilight

 

Light and moreover, the quality of the light that I’ve photographed in has, it’s true to say, been rather an obsession for me.

Working away from the cold, blue northern light of a damp Britain, I’ve been completely enthralled by the warmth and the colour of the light of the South – particularly of Africa and Asia. Sometimes I confess, that concern has overridden my image-making – sometimes I’ve simply not taken an image that perhaps I should have done because I didn’t feel the light was beautiful enough. It used to be much worse when working on transparency film: dawn and dusk were the only times I would work outside comfortably because only then could you guarantee that rich, golden warmth.

I’ve therefore been intrigued over the last few days to read Peter Davidson’s new book, The last of the light – about twilight. In it, Davidson examines twilight in the tradition of Western art, thought and sensibility. It is an extraordinary book and a meditation on the very brief threshold between day and dusk. I realised that I’ve shot so little outside of the ‘golden hours’ that actually I wonder if I’ve done myself a great disservice. I’m not sure that except on a few isolated occasions that I ever have shot at twilight – that briefest of in-between times when the sun has dipped and ushers in a blue sky just before the inevitable black.

Digital cameras allow us a much greater latitude to cover marginal light – sometimes light that the human eye cannot see. In that way perhaps we’re becoming less aware of light’s peculiarities and certainly its perceived technical limitations. Certainly if we are able to photograph more in twilight perhaps we are less aware of its historic and symbolic meanings for past generations. Inevitably, it just becomes another time of day shorn of it’s cultural significance – and hence the kind of imagery that we can photographically reflect.

I’m not sure that except on a few isolated occasions that I ever have shot at twilight. Here’s an image taken (ironically in London) of an instant before twilight – just as the sun is dipping below the horizon.

 

An Eco Protester salutes the day’s end on the site in Wandsworth, London that has been occupied by environmental campaigners called “The Land is Ours”. London, UK. The land, owned by Guinness was occupied by activists who built a squatted village to show the potential of alternative land use.

 

Manzes Pie and Mash shop now a listed building

 

I’m delighted that one of the traditional Pie and Mash shops that I was privileged to photograph a couple of years ago has been given Grade II Listed status.

According to the citation, “The building, which was first opened to the public in 1929, has been given the accolade for its ‘beautifully preserved interiors’, which have never been replaced or modernised”

I wrote and photographed at length about London’s dying Pie and Mash shops (and jellied eels) on this blog last year. See here.

Here’s a small selection of images from Manzes in Walthamstow Market.

 

UK - London - L Manze
UK – London – L Manze Eel, Pie and Mash Shop in Walthamstow East London. Although the shop still trades under the Manze name it is now independently owned and no longer part of the Manze family business.

 

UK - London - Manze's Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow, East London,
UK – London – Manze’s Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow, East London,

 

UK - London - The interior (including the painted tin tiles on the ceiling) of Manze's Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow,
UK – London – The interior (including the painted tin tiles on the ceiling) of Manze’s Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow

 

 

UK - London - Manze's Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow, East London, UK.Although the shop still trades under the original Manze name, it is now independently owned and no longer part of the Manze family. This resturant is a Grade-2 listed building with antique pressed-tin tiles on the ceiling
UK – London – Manze’s Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow, East London, UK. Although the shop still trades under the original Manze name, it is now independently owned and no longer part of the Manze family. This resturant is a Grade-2 listed building with antique pressed-tin tiles on the ceiling

 

UK - London - Period tiling at Manze's Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow, East London
UK – London – Period tiling at Manze’s Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow, East London

 

UK - London - Details of an antique cash register at Manze's Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow,
UK – London – Details of an antique cash register at Manze’s Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow,

 

 

 

A very Indian intimacy

 

Appropriately on Valentine’s Day, the New York Times carries a piece today about the changing landscape of romance and especially kissing in Indian society. During my project about documenting Delhi’s green spaces, I photographed many couples seeking intimacy in public places unable to do so at home. Here are a couple of images from the series Public Spaces, Private Lives. A fuller set ran on the Camera Obscura blog in 2009 with a little interview about the work.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

India - New Delhi -
India – New Delhi – A couple hold hands in the park at India Gate. Public displays of affection are rare in a conservative city like Delhi. The parks and open spaces however are often full of romantic couples away from the prying eyes of traditional families

 

 

India - New Delhi -
India – New Delhi – A couple in the grounds of the Purana Qila share an intimate moment

 

Meditation Flash Mob…

I’ve mentioned before about people finding private space for themselves in busy cities so here was a nice little thing – a meditation flash mob – perhaps a couple of hundred people or so came to sit by the stone lion in the great Court of the British Museum on Friday evening… shame I was photographing rather than being a part of it as it looked rather interesting…

 

UK - London - A man performs qi gong exercises as part of a meditation flash mob in the Great Court of the British Museum

 

UK - London - People taking part in a meditation flash mob in the Great Court of the British Museum

 

UK - London - A woman taking part in a meditation flash mob in the Great Court of the British Museum

The end of Delhi’s street culture?

I was saddened but entirely unsurprised to see in a recent BBC report that Delhi’s excellent street hawkers were being evicted before the Commonwealth Games. With grinding monotony it seems that vegetable sellers, cobblers, presswallahs, hawkers and other undesirables that the city depend on are being moved off – often despite applying for licenses that never come.

According to the National Association of Street Vendors, Delhi has something like 350000 hawkers that sell their wares on the streets. Most live a hand-to-mouth existence and, if they are the main breadwinners in families of perhaps five people, the economic fallout from a large section of Delhi’s working class will be enormous.

The streetwallah’s plight follows Delhi’s drive to evict as many beggars and ‘undesirables’ from the city as it can. Andrew Buncombe’s piece for the Independent here is worth reading.

Earlier this year I read a fascinating book, Trickster City; an anthology of writings from the ‘belly of the metropolis’ by young, working class writers dealing with slum life and eviction. A voice rarely heard – an almost Dickensian cityscape rarely seen by Westerners and desperate to be hidden by the State authorities.

The irony is that many countries celebrate their street culture – especially food – and make them a tourist attraction: one has only to think of Singapore and Vietnam. Delhi’s depressing desire to imitate a corporate driven monoculture is certain to lead to a lessening of the city’s heritage.

My images start with Kishori Lal and his family. Lal, a tailor from Rajasthan, set up his little stall outside the wall of a ‘big man’ twenty two years ago. He takes up the story: “There was no footpath here then. The tree that you see on the footpath is standing on a narrow strip of land between two sewage lines that run underneath. I asked the maali (gardener) to plant it there and got
the sapling for him. If I have any trouble, the Saheb helps me out. After so many years here, like this tree I have also taken roots in Delhi. But who belongs to this place? Even the sahibs are from outside.”

India - New Delhi - Kishori Lal, a tailor and his family under an Ashoka tree

India - Delhi - A paan wallah making paan in Old Delhi. Paan consists of chewing Betel leaf (Piper betle) combined with the areca nut. It is chewed as a palate cleanser and a breath freshener. It is also commonly offered to guests and visitors as a sign of hospitality and as an "ice breaker" to start conversation. It also has a symbolic value at ceremonies and cultural events in south and southeast Asia. Paan makers may use mukhwas or tobacco as an ingredient in their paan fillings. Although most types of paan contain areca nuts as a filling, some do not. Other types include what is called sweet paan, where sugar, candied fruit and fennel seeds are used.
India - Delhi - A street vendor frying potato cakes on a stall
India - Delhi - A street vendor frying potato cakes on a stall
India - Delhi - A Chai Wallah or tea maker makes tea in Old Delhi, India. Traditionally Indian tea is a mixture of tea leaves, water, sugar and sometimes spices boiled together and strained into cups
India - Delhi - A man eats a plate of street food
India - Delhi - A man eats street food bought from a hawker

The Indian Coffee House revisited…

I have the pleasure to report that on a recent assignment back in Delhi, I again sampled the delights of the Indian Coffee House on Baba Karak Singh Marg that I wrote about some time ago. Despite the threats to it’s existence, it seems in rude and shambolic health and I can attest to the power of it’s rather watery coffee and good conversation. I whipped in for an hour, as usual after shooting something else and the general opinion from the clientelle was, “… Close? Over my dead body…”.

In a packed hour, I met a man called Achilles, was lectured on peace in Nagaland and inevitably answered the question ‘from which country are you from’. I answer as always, ‘not Australia’ (many people take my strangulated East London drawl to be from the Outback for some reason…).

Anyway, here’s some quick pictures:

India - New Delhi - An elderly man in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg
India - New Delhi - An elderly man in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg
India - New Delhi - Regular customers sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg
India - New Delhi - Regular customers sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg
India - New Delhi - A waiter holding a tray with a coffee cup and spoons in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg
India - New Delhi - A waiter holding a tray with a coffee cup and spoons in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg