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William Dalrymple: Picture This

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William Dalrymple was a keen photographer before he became an author. The cell phone has returned him to that abandoned love.


The Writer’s Eye | William Dalrymple | HarperCollins | Pages 72 | Rs 999

WHO IS WILLIAM Dalrymple? Is he a historian and author, or farmer and goatherd? Does he thrive in the desolate moors of Scotland, the farmlands of Mehrauli, the caves of Ellora or the frenzy of Diggi Palace in Jaipur? Is he happiest with his books and family to protect him, or does he revel in distant lands and remote geographies?

And now we have a new question: did you know he was a photographer before he was a writer? The Writer’s Eye (HarperCollins, 72 Pages, Rs 999) proves that the man in question can take photos, and really good ones at that. Unlike so much of his previous work, which untangled the whens, hows and whys of history, this collection of photos is much simpler. It interests itself only in the nows or nevers. After all, as we have all heard too many times before, photography is about that ‘decisive moment’. If you wait too long or are too impatient, the tilt of the head, the slant of the rays, the patterns in the sky will disappear forever. The act of photography is an immediate response to an urgent stimulus.

While the book opens with a rather maudlin essay by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (the mastermind behind the project), Dalrymple’s essay anchors the images. The 50-odd photos in this book, shot over two years, devoid of captions, and all in black and white, wouldn’t tell you the story of people and monuments, but will haul you over the Hindu Kush, lure you into Northumbria, set you afloat down the Ganga and cast you upon the beaches of Scotland.

The absence of captions initially disorients, but one can appreciate the editorial judgement behind it. These photos are fractals unto themselves, you can consider them as standalones, or you can identify in them curves and edges which grow from photo to photo. Don’t try to locate a specific time and place in them. Instead, consider them to be the tessellations of an artist like MC Escher, where shapes spell out the story. The narrative lies not in the specifics of the photo but in the geometry of our surrounding, as seen in the reflections of water and sky, the contours of land and the outlines of monuments.

More than other cameras, the cell phone is an extension of the eye… It has a sort of guerrilla quality

And did we mention that all these photos have been shot on the humble cell phone? The cell phone camera connects Dalrymple not only to the endless horde of Facebookers and Instagramers but also to one of his heroes Henri Cartier- Bresson, who used his handy Leica for much of his work. Splayed across his couch “like Caligula” at his farmhouse in Mehrauli, Dalrymple says, “At a time when people were using large-format cameras and tripods, Bresson used one of those mini little Leicas. Which were the cell phone cameras of their day. They had silent shutters so you couldn’t hear when a photograph was being taken. At that time, he was considered a sort of unserious photographer. It is the same reason that we go to the cell phone today. It is small, portable and doesn’t create a tamasha. When I was taking photos in Agra, people thought I was checking my texts. So even more than other cameras, the cell phone is an extension of the eye… It has a sort of guerrilla quality.”

This guerrilla quality comes especially handy when taking photos of people. And Dalrymple is a master of expressions and attitudes, evident in hundreds of photos taken by him and posted on social media. He has a recent series on the Naga headhunters where he captures their valour, and their mirth. In these photos, you see ‘people’ and not ‘subjects’ as those in the frame seem to engage with the man behind the camera and not merely pose for him. The twinkle in their eye or the lay of their lips makes you privy to an unseen and unheard exchange between photographer and person. As Dalrymple scrolls through the portraits on his phone, he pauses at a photo of two elderly men to say that the two headhunters were talking about capturing their first skull at 18. Today they are evangelical Christians, and at the end of their long spiel about hunting heads, they asked Dalrymple if he’d join them in prayer. He did.

Interestingly, The Writer’s Eye holds no portraits. Dalrymple says, “This book and the exhibition are not my initiative. It is all Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. He had a very coherent vision. I was rather intrigued by his selection. It is not necessarily what I would have chosen. He chose photos with an abstract quality. It is very much his choice. And I have been very happy to let him.”

For Dalrymple, a return to photography is a return to an old and abandoned love. As a seven-year-old, he was a geek with a camera. He spent many years poring over Amateur Photography. He would obsess about depth of field and shutter speed; he didn’t need a light metre, but he had one. By 15 he had won a prize for an archaeological photo of a standing stone on the islands of Cavendish. In college, he says, he was a “mad, keen photographer”; when all his friends were chasing girls and drinking at pubs, he was sitting in the dark room watching images grow and emerge.

“I attended a monastic school run by monks. Now many of them are behind bars for child abuse. I had no trouble at all

The Writer’s Eye’ is currently mounted at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, but his previous large-scale photographic exhibition ‘Hajj: An Islamic Pilgrimage’ was back in 1986. The story behind it is particularly interesting. The exhibition was held at a beautiful room in St Clair College, which was also used for amateur theatrics. A theatre group was putting up Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by someone known to be a cricketer and not a thespian. That boy happened to be Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty, Road to Perdition and Skyfall.

When Dalrymple recounts the past and present, it often feels like he is referring to a Camelot of today. If Sam Mendes slips into our conversation, in the introduction Dalrymple recounts with immense tenderness his encounter with travel writer Bruce Chatwin as a 21-year-old. He writes: ‘After [Chatwin] had gone, I wandered through the park in the bright autumn sunlight, rabbit-in-the-headlights dazzled by the whole performance: I’d never come across anyone like him, or met anyone who even approached him as a conversationalist. I’m not sure I ever have since.’

While Dalrymple was fortunate to encounter these people in his youth, the figure I find most compelling is his ‘Calcutta-born, part-Bengali great-great- aunt’ Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century.’ Her great-niece Virginia Woolf writes a delightful essay about Cameron’s exploits with the camera. ‘In 1865, when she was fifty, her son’s gift of a camera gave her at last an outlet for the energies which she had dissipated in poetry and fiction and doing up houses and concocting curries and entertaining her friends. Now she became a photographer. All her sensibility was expressed, and, what was perhaps more to the purpose, controlled in the new born art. The coal-house was turned into a dark room; the fowl-house was turned into a glass-house. Boatmen were turned into King Arthur; village girls into Queen Guenevere. Tennyson was wrapped in rugs: Sir Henry Taylor was crowned with tinsel. The parlour- maid sat for her portrait and the guest had to answer the bell… Like a tigress where her children were concerned, she was as magnificently uncompromising about her art… She cared nothing for the miseries of her sitters nor for their rank. The carpenter and the Crown Prince of Prussia alike must sit as still as stones in the attitudes she chose, in the draperies she arranged, for as long as she wished. She cared nothing for her own labours and failures and exhaustion.’

The labours of Cameron which Woolf describes so well played a role in creating Dalrymple the photographer. As a child and teenager, he remained fascinated with the family albums of Cameron’s elaborately choreographed images, and like her, he too would smell of the chemicals of the dark room. Growing up in the ‘cold and wind-swept shores of the Firth of Forth (Scotland)’, he too wished to ‘arrest all the beauty’.

His first 18 years were spent on the Yorkshire Moors, which were endless tracts of all land and sky. With his signature wit, he says, “My education was particularly remote. I attended a monastic school run by monks. Now many of them are behind bars for child abuse. I had no trouble at all. I was a fat little boy. No one even tried it on me at any point in that den of abuse. I still get letters; ‘Did you know Father X? And do you have anything to report?’ And I have to write back, ‘I did know Father X. And he was lovely.’”

Growing up on ‘the edge of things’ Dalrymple has sought out distant locales, such as the stupa fields of Ladakh, the deserts of western Iran or the palaces visited by Marco Polo. Given that The Writer’s Eye is testimony to his wanderlust, where is home, I ask. He says, “When I was growing up it was definitely Scotland. I grew up on the beach. I have a house in London, where we spend summer for two months. The kids were born there. That is home. But this is definitely home. I have been to Delhi on and off since I was 18. And have never really left, by choice.”

Dalrymple recently celebrated his 51st birthday in the same place he celebrated his 19th—Hampi. Three decades ago he swum in the Tungabhadra river, slept in a temple and used his backpack as a pillow. This time he was flown down on a private jet. With a hearty laugh he says, “The style may have changed. But the passions remain the same.”

We meet his latest acquisition, a dozen pigeons. His two goats named Gilbert and George—who went onto spawn Oedipus, Freud and Jung—have been around much longer. Two turkeys make a beeline for our toes. And a rooster goes about its business, clucking at the world. Dalrymple spends minutes extracting the pigeons, recounting their virtues— this one is the Aishwarya of the flock, that one is the hardest to snag—and returning them to their coop. He asks the maali why the crops look wilted. He pets his stray dog. And that is when you realise William Dalrymple is home.

(The Writer’s Eye, curated by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, will be on at Sunaparanta: Goa Centre for the Arts till 5 April; at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi till 20 April and the Grosvenor Gallery, London, from 23 June to 10 July)

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