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Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown

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Parul Sharma Roli Books Pages 154 Hard cover Rs 2975

A Review by Ganesh Saili

Staccato! Each image dealing a sledge-hammer blow! Reminding you of Papa Hemingway’s prose. Look closer to see a brave woman daring out in the city that she calls home. Her mission? To capture on her mobile (albeit clip-on Leica lenses) haunting images of its historic buildings; sharing the grief of Covid victims or celebrating its vitality and courage. I flip through Parul Sharma’s latest coffee table published by Roli Books Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown. Wha on earth can be new. There are these Franciscan dialogues with the city that make the book one of a kind. A couple of weeks after the pandemic settled down around us like a dark shroud, Parul was not the kind to crawl into the safety of home,. Instead putting on a PPE kit, she went out into the familiar streets of old. The result is there for to see. First-hand pictures that grab you by the collar to stay on even after the book returns to the bookshelf. ‘She has created a unique visual story of the pandemic through a series of images that capture a deserted India,’ says Steve McCurry, adding: ‘It depicts an unfamiliar Delhi that I have never encountered.’

East of India Gate is Edwin Lutyen’s tribute to the late King George V. Built in 1936, Lutyen’s used four Delhi Order Columns to support a canopy, inspired by a sixth century pavilion from Mahabalipuram. ( Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

‘We face the good and the bad of India in Delhi city which has been the grave of many empires and the nursery of a republic. What a tremendous story of hers. Here the tradition of our history surrounds us at every step, and the procession of innumerable generations passes by before our eyes.’ Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India. Shooting over 10,000 frames, only a handful of which make it to this marvellously curated book. It is printed on synthetic paper. From shooting a desolate Lutyens’ Delhi to the haunted vistas of Old Delhi, Parul moves on to catching up with migrants, who are leaving the city in droves. There are Covid-19 patients being treated at the All India Institute of Medical Science, or grim scenes at the crematoriums and graveyards.

Delhi’s unbiquitous crows hover ominously over an empty Rajpath.( Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

William Dalrymple says: ‘Parul Sharma has caught a unique moment in Indian history, producing a startling portfolio of a locked-down, masked, visored, sanitized, padlocked and disinfected Delhi, almost empty of people and taken over by bored jawans and preening monkeys. Never has the Indian capital looked so unfamiliar, or so unreal.’

Coffee at Cha Bar, Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place .( Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

Make no mistake, this is not photo-journalism. A creative person cannot and must not set limits on oneself. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph shot during the Great Depression blurs the line between news and art, as it transcends boundaries and is just as relatable for an Indian viewer as it is for an American.

Looks Salon, Claridges. In July the beauty business unlocked its doors and hairdressers donned Star Wars uniforms to guarantee safety while they cut and snipped locks..(Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

In her introduction, Parul reminds us of photographer Robert Capa saying: ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.’ Adding: “What you see in the following pages are my closest encounters with the sighs, solitude, sorrows and consolations of a despairing city.’ In the trenches of the frontline are the Covid Warriors, brave men like Dr. Rajesh Malhotra, who worked an eighteen-hour shift, seven-days-a-week, staying in the hospital to catch sleep in snatches.
Lodhi Garden opened and Delhi’s Mecca for all walkers, runners, strollers, lovers, power wielders and seekers buzzed again with life and the pursuit of wellness. (Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

Although she did try, she could not possibly be everywhere. The pictures of the migrants flocking home are a little weak. But the photographer tells you her family put their foot down when it came to letting her go out to places crammed with people.
Delhi’s historic Cinema House, Regal, built in 1932 for plays and ballets and the magical talkies. Gone with the Wind premiered in1940, as did Raj Kapoor’s megahit Sangam and Mera Naam Joker. ..(Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

“When I spotted the monkeys, I parked my car and quietly walked up to them, but they did not come to me or jump at me at all,” Sharma said. “They were so quiet, it seemed like they were having a conference. People had left them bananas. With no one around, they had taken over both sides of the road.”
Delhi’s permanent rulers, Rhesus monkeys, recaptured North Avenue mocking the virus and the residents who cowered inside their government flats. .(Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

She juxtaposes pictures of the city of her birth, its iconic architecture against the vast empty spaces. There is the Jama Masjid which stands out for because of a dreamy air that accompanies the picture shot with a slow shutter.
The timeless lure of Jama Masjid surreal and real. (Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

Soon after the epidemic was upon us, began the return home of migrant workers in tens of thousands trying to go back home. They were scenes straight out of a Biblical plague. Bereft of work and money, they had nothing to buy food. Leaving them to fend for themselves, will probably be remembered long after the dust has settled on the greatest human tragedy of our times. Parul recalls camaraderie” among the children “who were innocent of what was happening around them”, both on the streets and in the hospital.
His name is Tomorrow. ..(Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)
But Sharma’s fears disappeared as she went about taking photographs. “When the doctors were gearing up in the donning area, wearing the hazmat suits, and taping up every inch of their skin, it felt like they were going to war,” Sharma said. “They were, like, in a meditative state.”
Not an inch of skin would be left exposed. (Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)

Making these stunning black and white pictures, brought home to the photographer the value of simple things. Things that we take for granted. Like staying home and just pottering around. For when the ‘hurly-burly’ is done, all we are left with are family and friends have. Life, after all is so fragile – here today, gone tomorrow. At day’s end these are the things that human beings treasure.

Love and lust in the city of masks. The Ridge. July 2020 ..(Courtesy Parul Sharma/ Roli Books)