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Posted at: Jan 14, 2018, 1:43 AM; last updated: Jan 14, 2018, 1:52 AM (IST)

Relics of the Raj revisited

Derry Moore’s photographs are an unsettling reality of what we have lost in the last few decades
Relics of the Raj revisited
Card room of the Gentlemen’s Salon, Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, 1976

Amit Sengupta

In the extraordinary book, In the Shadow of the Raj: Derry Moore in India, to be released along with his photo show travelling across India, old India-hand, veteran radio journalist and author Mark Tully writes, “Looking at Derry Moore’s photographs, I feel nostalgic and profoundly sad. I feel nostalgic because they bring back to me the India I knew as a child, and the India I knew when I first came back to live here in 1965. I feel sad because so many Indians show so little respect for that past. India has one of the oldest, if not the oldest culture in the world; Varanasi is the only surviving ancient city which can claim its culture has not changed. This culture has survived because India has long adapted to the other cultures that have come with conquerors and settlers. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, ‘I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’ This has been the philosophy that has guided India. Now though, I see India being blown off its feet by crass consumerism and militant materialism carried by the wind known as globalisation and the neo-liberal economics which come with it.”

Moore first started travelling in India around the 1970s when the dreams of the freedom movement seemed to be evaporating rapidly, the idealism of the past had given way to a raw kind of anger, bitterness and despair, and the eyes of the collective did not really reflect great hope as they looked to the future. This was reflected in the archives and architectures of the old days, including the royalty, and in the eyes and faces of ordinary people. Moore’s portrait of a woman in New Delhi with a backdrop of homing pigeons looks stunningly beautiful in black and white, but there is an isolation and loneliness in the picture which even the birds can’t break. So is his inward eye of the camera on the decadent private residence of a royalty with tiger skins as ‘trophies’ sprawled all across the walls and table, reflecting both ruination and a lack of taste and refinement. In the same vein, the ruins of the residency in Lucknow speak not only the story of the 1857 mutiny, but also how the slow passage of time has so decisively ravaged the architecture of colonial times, and so quickly.

Moore travelled across cities and small towns of India, from the temple of the rats in Rajasthan to the famous temples of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. He writes about the city of learning and literature, Calcutta, even as he watches a Bengali play written by the great Russian writer Ivan Turgenev without understanding a word. “Another surprise in Calcutta was its architecture: apart from the buildings of British India, there was a host of houses that had been built in the last century by wealthy Bengalis, nearly all crammed into the narrow streets of Calcutta. These buildings had gardens or large inner courtyards, or both, and generally boasted an assortment of columns and statuary. By 1977, all, except the Marble Palace, were in various states of advanced decay.”

Moore writes about Bombay: “It was in Bombay that I first heard the sound which evokes India more than any other — the cawing of the crows, the ‘dustmen’ of India. In the daytime it is never absent, whether in town or country. It was in Bombay too that I first saw the houses that intrigued and surprised me so much. Built mainly in the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth, they were European in style, but European with a difference, their walls a riot of decorative detail that eschewed any bare surface. The effect was not dissimilar to that achieved on Indian temples and temple carts. They displayed too those architectural features necessary to buildings in the tropics; in particular, the extravagant window surrounds designed to afford extra protection in the monsoon. In 1976, despite Bombay’s move towards its incarnation as another Hong Kong, quite a number of these houses survived, and on Malabar Hill there were still a few of the great Parsi mansions standing.”

Moore’s show will travel to Delhi’s Bikaner House near India Gate in January. It will at once be a reminder of a changing India, now wanting to become a super power, and the impact of an affluent and consumerist society on the fading vestiges of its past. It is not a happy journey always, but, then, the picture tells the story in more ways than one. Especially in black and white.

The exhibition is organised by Tasveer and Dauble, and the book has been conceived and complied by Tasveer and Dauble, and is published by Prestel UK.

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