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.

 

Tearsheet – Amateur Photographer Magazine

 

Over the summer, I wrote on this blog about my series, the Heirs of the East London Group, the inheritors of the almost forgotten group of working-class, realist painters who had depicted life in a changing East End at the start of the twentieth century.

This week, Amateur Photographer magazine published a piece written by me about the work and, I’m delighted that the publication has been dedicated to, as I hoped, the late Ronald Morgan who passed away some months ago and whose image dominates the feature.

I’ll publish some of the text of that interview here next week if anyone would like to read it and hasn’t, by then, had the chance to buy a copy of the magazine.

 

 

 

 

The Folly of Poundbury…

 

 

Yesterday, I was delighted to learn that Prince Charles and family – surely Britian’s most celebrated benefit claimants – were visiting his very own bejewelled architectural confusion, Poundbury. Three years ago, I visited the same town – a kind of Daily Mail wet dream of Middle England, to write about it for a special edition of the German magazine, Brand Eins. I found the place mostly deserted with a chill wind whipping through a stage set of architectural pastiche and folly. Charles, a fan of the work of Albert Speer, has overseen the creation of a fantasy land: a reimagining (from a lonely castle window) of a ‘former’ but entirely fictional Britain well suited to the Brexit generation (British homes for British people…) – an airbrushed past of classical architectural tropes masquerading uncomfortably as an (upmarket) housing estate.

You can read the piece called ‘The strange Death of the British Utopia – or how Britain live in her own past’ here (warning: it’s long…).

but I leave you with an image of a deserted street and a Neo Classical … errr bus shelter.

A traditionally styled shelter in Poundbury. Poundbury on Duchy of Cornwall land is Prince Charles' attempt to create an urban extension to Dorchester famed for Its pastiche of traditional architecture. Dorset, UK
A traditionally styled shelter in Poundbury. Poundbury on Duchy of Cornwall land is Prince Charles’ attempt to create an urban extension to Dorchester famed for its pastiche of traditional architecture. Dorset, UK

 

 

A traditionally styled building in Poundbury. Poundbury on Duchy of Cornwall land is Prince Charles' attempt to create an urban extension to Dorchester famed for Its pastiche of traditional architecture. Dorset, UK
An empty street in Poundbury. Dorset, UK

Tearsheet – Digital Camera Magazine – The Photo Essay

 

Here’s a rather lovely tear sheet from this month’s Digital Camera Magazine. They asked me to write a piece about how to put together a photo essay so I deconstructed (and greatly simplified) the classic Life Magazine formula using several of my old stories to illustrate the idea.

As I say in the piece, the Life formula is much derided these days but I teach it (and use it myself) because it’s so useful.

Just as there are rules in grammar which enable us to convey meaning, this ‘formula’ allows you to use a narrative structure that ‘reads’ in a similar way. There’s a logic and a simplicity to it. In any case, if you know the rules, you can break them – but it’s good to know them first…

 

 

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Tearsheet – UnCommon London

 

I’m delighted that my writing about London’s eel and pie tradition is included in the new UnCommon London book.

UnCommon is a compendium of guide and travel writing “and is more of a ‘companion’ for the traveller before, during and after the journey.” UnCommon London joins editions on Malta, Stockholm and Dubai.

Commissioned by my old friend Mike Fordham, my words are illustrated by May Van Millingen.

Here are a couple of pages to give you an idea…

 

 

 

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Chandannagar and the mystery of Private J N Sen

 

In 2013, I made a story about the now sleepy town of Chandannagar on the banks of the Hooghly River near Kolkata.

Chandannagar (or Chandernagore) was first established as a French colony in 1673 when the Nawab of Bengal gave permission to establish a trading mission. By 1730 when Joseph Francois Dupleix was appointed governor, Chandannagar had more than two thousand brick built houses and was the main European entry to the subcontinent. The British East India Company inconveniently flattened a good deal of it during its capture in 1756 but returned it to French rule in 1816. It was governed as part of France until 1950 when the inhabitants voted to join with the newly independent India.

As part of my story, I wandered into the Institut de Chandernagar, now a museum that was the original governor’s palace. Inside, amongst Colonial French artifacts, I found a mystery – and one that I found very moving and upsetting.

Here is what I wrote:

“In another dusty room a harpsichord gently decays, its keys like broken teeth, watched over by a small bust of a stern Napoleon. In a case, the last French flag, dirty and a little tattered. Dupleix’s own bed is enormous but deeply uncomfortable looking. Time has stopped here and moulders in the sticky, wet heat. Perhaps saddest of all, the shattered spectacles of Dr J N Sen MB MRCS Private West Yorkshire Regiment and a son of Chandannagar, killed in action on the night of 22/23rd of May 1916 in France. His, the dubious honour of being the first Bengali to do so. Why he was fighting for a British regiment is a mystery but how sad to die so far from the verdant splendour of the steamy jungle and the smell of jasmine oil in a woman’s hair.”

I had quite forgotten about this until this morning when I heard a short piece on the BBC Radio 4 programme, Today (if you listen it’s at 02:53:51) where Santanu Das (a reader in English at King’s College London) explains why Dr Sen was there. There is also a piece here from BBC Leeds published a few days ago that reports the story.

I remember standing there in the heat of the room feeling so utterly moved by the spectacles that I didn’t take a photograph but just jotted some words down and had to leave.

Here are some images from the story. The last frame shows the talented musician Umesh Mishra, playing his sarangi during a practice session for a concert he was giving that night in the town.

Perhaps that might be a fitting visual requiem for Sen.

 

 

India - Chandernaggar - Traffic passes the gates to the town of Chandannagar bearing the French inscription, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Chandannagar, India
India – Chandernaggar – Traffic passes the gates to the town of Chandannagar bearing the French inscription, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.

 

India - Chandannagar - A flag and a bust in the museum at Chandannagar, originally the home of Joseph François Dupleix who was appointed governor of the city in 1730.
India – Chandannagar – A flag and a bust in the museum at Chandannagar, originally the home of Joseph François Dupleix who was appointed governor of the city in 1730.

 

India - Chandannagar - A statue of Liberty outside the museum in Chandannagar, originally the home of Joseph François Dupleix who was appointed governor of the city in 1730.
India – Chandannagar – A statue of Liberty outside the museum in Chandannagar, originally the home of Joseph François Dupleix who was appointed governor of the city in 1730.

 

India - Chandannagar - Umesh Mishra, 26 a sarangi virtuoso tunes his instrument before a concert later that night at the Nrityagopal Smriti Mandir
India – Chandannagar – Umesh Mishra, 26 a sarangi virtuoso tunes his instrument before a concert later that night at the Nrityagopal Smriti Mandir

Tearsheet – Brand Eins (Neuland)

Here’s a recent tearsheet from the German Magazine Brand Eins Neuland. They commissioned me to interview three former alumni of Jacobs University for a special edition on the city of Bremen. I travelled to Ethiopia (Addis Ababa) and Bangladesh (Dhaka) to write the story and made a brief city reportage as well as the portraits.

 

 

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Shivers up my spine…

A few weeks ago, Priya Thomas who runs the rather excellent Shivers up the Spine blog got in touch because she was running a piece about the pioneering choreographer Richard Tremblay and his training in Kathakali. In the 1970’s he attended the Kerala Kalamandalam which I photographed (and wrote about) for a magazine a few years ago.

In a fascinating piece, she profiles Tremblay and explores his cross-cultural approach. I was happy to give Priya permission to run some images and publish my piece Into the Dreams of Heroes in its entirety. You can see the main article here and my piece here.

My edit of the story can be found on my site here

 

 

A good collaboration.