Twilight of My City: On the Personal in the Project
This article was originally published in September 2013.
How does one choose a photographic project? How does one project differ from the other? How does one photograph time, or the passage of? Can we photograph something that does not even exist anymore? Is a personal body of work merely personal? These are only some of the questions I have pondered on, while shooting an ongoing body of work in old Delhi.
After a six-year project on Kashmir, I was emotionally sapped. I wanted to take on a project through which I could connect with myself. I wanted to look inwards. And thus began a journey of going back to my roots, my memories of growing up in old Delhi.
I thought this was going to be a very simple project. After all, how difficult can writing your memoirs be? But as I started going back to visit the parts of Ballimaran where I lived for 30 years, I realised the irony. Here I was, trying to piece together all that I remembered, trying to connect my own dots, but life in old Delhi has undergone such a drastic change that memory has almost become a mirage.
Shahjehanabad, the historical area that led to the formation of Delhi, is no longer there. When I go back to the few remnants, they seem like a different movie that is playing out… the courtyards, the havelis, the bagichas. But bagicha is now farmhouse, and chacha is now uncle. As kids, we used to calculate time by hearing the azaan of the Jama Masjid. Even though I wasn’t a believer, there were no divisions. We didn’t need to be taught secularism, the way it is sermonised today. It was, simply put, a way of life.
And a life that was a melting pot of art has now become a commercial hub. It was always commercial, the area, but there was a demarcation that allowed both worlds to coexist. In recent years, commercial interests have pushed culture out, and when culture gets pushed out of any place, its decay is imminent. Thus, my working title—Twilight of my City.
Photography is a medium that bears witness. A photographer must be wary of the fact that he cannot judge from the outset. Instead, allow the subject to reveal itself, slowly, one layer at a time. One may say that my working title is contrary to these beliefs as it sets a certain tone, but the reasons for that lie in my memories. The title was always in my head. Not that I was making a statement before treading my first step, but the fact was, it wasn’t my first step. I wasn’t venturing into an unknown subject. The soul of the project was what I have lived. The soul were the thoughts and emotions that had been pecking away, at my soul.
Today, every inch of old Delhi has been sold out. The people who come here to work do not live here. For them, the land is only a machine that is churning out money. That is why, perhaps, they are not giving back to the city. It is a global problem, come to think of it. The heart isn’t where the head is. The heart isn’t where the pocket is. In this chaos of commerce and progress, have we really evolved?
So the simple became complex, and the personal became social. I am not doing this project as a social commentator, but as a personal voice, commenting on the transition around his journey. With the kind of tumultuous change that photography is going through, I think we all need to look inwards. Instead of following trends or calculating success, let’s look at the path set by our experiences, by our life that is lived. As an Indian photographer, one ought to think Indian, thus the importance of going back to one’s roots. As someone who grew up around the tehzeeb of the old city, I feel the constant need to reconnect.
So here I am, tapping on walls and tapping on memories. In chaar deewaron mein kitni yaadein judi hain. Kitne log jude hain. Photography can make memories. But as a photographer, how does one relive the same memory. Especially if it does not exist?
About Amit Mehra
Amit has constantly tried to walk on a tightrope that oscillates between commercial and documentary photography. He describes himself with a touch of humour, saying,“I am like an octopus who likes to deal with different things at the same time. You can probably call me a schizophrenic photographer.”