Over the last five years or so I must have photographed Delhi street food a dozen times for different magazines. I would always however try and steer the piece towards the Ghantewala sweet shop on Chandni Chowk – as much because that gave me a good excuse to try the ladoos and the sohan halwa which was always offered.
I was deeply saddened this morning after reading the excellent Delhi Walla blog that the Ghantewala sweetshop had suddenly closed. According to a piece in today’s Hindu, the current owner, Sushant Jain, said unavoidable personal circumstances – and a drop in profits – had led to the closure. Ghantewala had been around in one form or another since 1790 and legend has it that the Emporer’s favourite elephant used to ring the bell hanging outside the shop to be fed sweets. As so often, the truth behind the legends matter less than the legends themselves: so cities ebb and flow. In recent years it seems that India has rediscovered its food heritage and realised that its culture is wrapped up in more than bricks and mortar. There are numerous Delhi food walks around now and my friend Pamela Timms, (although now recently relocated back to the UK) is the author of the definitive Korma, Kheer and Kismet – a wonderful and detailed tour of many unsung street eating joints. The globalisation of food means that I can eat at any number of Japanese or Italian restaurants in Delhi but I should be hard pressed now to taste sweets that link the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam to the present day. What a shame.
As a long time reader and follower of Mayank Austen Soofi, the Delhi flâneur, writer and photographer I was delighted, if rather daunted, when he chose me to write my own obituary as part of an occasional series on the city. It was, I must say a rather strange and sobering assignment but you can read all about it by clicking on the photograph below…
Some assignments are straightforward, some take a bit more thought. When the London School of Economics assigned me to photograph Delhi for their global cities conference I was delighted but also slightly nervous.
The brief was to image the city illustrating the difficulties of living in and governing India’s sprawling, chaotic capital. My preference is always to try and make beautiful pictures – but trying to marry that with an exacting shoot list that focused on academic concepts was always going to be challenging. It was however, the shoot list (and my drivers and assistants – notably the ever-cool Sunayana) that saved me. I’m always talking about the importance of scripting what you shoot and this was a perfect example of how it can really help. This wasn’t an assignment about what I wanted to show of Delhi or interpreting the city – but clearly illustrating issues that affect it. In fact, it was a very interesting way to work – trying to find places or people that evidenced concepts as diverse as public/private space and illegal adaptions of utilities.
Born and brought up in London, I’m fascinated by cities and the way that they develop and change and Delhi for me has been a kind of surrogate city – a sort of prism through which to view myself and see how metropolises (and I dare you to find the correct plural of metropolis…) evolve and change. Delhi, like London is palimpsestic in that cities have been built on top of cities. I can walk through any number of places in Delhi and find the exact same things that Dickens wrote about for example – the very foundations of a modern industrial world – but I can also find something much older – the Vedic prayers intoned by people still worshipping on the banks of the hideously polluted Yamuna.
One of the highlights was returning to Kathputli Colony that I’ve written about before and making work with the people there trying to save their homes and way of life. I was delighted to be re-united with the singer Bhagwan Das and it is his wife Sarbati that’s shown at the end in the last picture here at the conference in front of a giant poster and on the cover of the magazine.
By tomorrow night, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,800 children will have died from preventable, treatable diarrhea, largely linked to lack of clean water and sanitary conditions.
I’ve written several times about Delhi’s water wars and the struggle for its people to find any water, let alone clean water – (see here and here for a start). Here’s an image from the Kusumpur Pahari slum where that struggle for water is a daily one.
I’ve written several times over the last few years about Delhi’s Kathputli Colony (or as I knew it, Shadipur Depot) – that Dickensian maze of street performers and magicians that somehow floats on the imagination of the city. This time however, it looks like the city will finally swallow the place. According to Tehelka Magazine, residents of the ‘illegal’ slum – some 3500 families that have been there for forty years – may have to move soon to a re-development far to the North. The site at Shadipur where the land was once worthless is now, as the city grows, worth a fortune. It was sold by the the Delhi Development Authority in 2009 to the Mumbai-beased Raheja Builders however, at what Tehelka suggests was seriously undervalued price to make way for a high rise developments. These would, it was promised, include social housing for the performers families. It seems though that even on paper, the proposed number of dwellings for the artists is far short of the actual number needed. Perhaps with some good reason, the artists families don’t believe that the authorities will make good on their promises to allow them back to the area when it is developed. The project is now stuck in limbo as the Delhi Urban Arts Commission has objected to it. The traditional performers are caught. If they move, they lose their homes and their livelihoods. If they stay, they are likely to be evicted and from previous scenarios that may well be violent. They know however that they are simply powerless actors in a city’s development, caught as they are between tradition and a very cruel version of modernity. Since I made a story in Shadipur nearly a dozen years ago, quite a few photographers have worked here and a film was even made of the struggles of the residents. In some senses it was an easy story; a fairy tale in a bleak metropolis. Most people’s recent treatment of it completely ignored the fact that as Delhi grows and divides even more sharply between those that produce it’s wealth and those that exploit it, the story is no longer about a quaint tinsel-town slum. It is about how Delhi will look in the future. It is about what kind of society India wants for its cities and its people.
In 2010 I wrote about the city’s sweeping of street vendors off the pavements before the Commonwealth Games and I mentioned the excellent book, Trickster City, a collection of writings by those at the sharp end of the slum clearances. As I wrote then…
The irony is that many countries celebrate their street culture … 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.
As I’ve said many times here, I have no sentimental attachment to poverty and no Raj-tinted spectacles through which I view Delhi. I both hate and love the city but the scales are now tipped so far against certain sections of its people that I find it difficult sometimes to walk it’s streets and look some people in the eye.
I feel the weather turning. The mornings are colder. I hate it. I need cheering up. Here’s a picture with a big lump of red in it to do that.
Why did I choose this image? Just chatting to Michael Regnier at Panos. Sparked a thought about a lyric – John Foxx’s Hiroshima mon amour. Wonderful… “Features fused like shattered glass, the sun’s so low/Turns our silhouettes to gold/Hiroshima mon amour”
No relation to Delhi of course, but that image of light… I can feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun in the big lump of red…
Here’s a recent tearsheet – a cover and two stories – from the Independent on Sunday Magazine. Firstly, a piece on Fergus Drennan, (also known a s Fergus the Forager who I’ve written about and photographed before) and a piece on Karims restaurant in Old Delhi.