To research his upcoming book, The Anarchy, a chronicle of the disintegration and violent seizure of the Mughal Empire as seen from the perspective of its last prince, Shah Alam, William Dalrymple set off to physically follow in Alam’s footsteps across the length and breadth of the mighty kingdom once in his name. “If you really want to write a history of something,” Dalrymple says, “not only should you go to the primary sources, read the letters, translate the chronicles and all that work, but you have to go to the places, you have to know about all the places you’re talking about. You can’t write a description of the Battle of Plassey unless you’ve stood on the isthmus looking out over the flat plains. You can’t write about Mughal Delhi unless you’ve been to the Red Fort. You can’t describe Srirangapatna and Tipu Sultan unless you’ve walked the walls and understood what it meant to be where he was in the midst of that river with the armies of the East India Company coming at him.”

William Dalrymple

Shalimar Bagh, Lahore

Dawn over Skardu, Pakistan

The black and white images taken in these historical places (Lahore, Kolkata, etc) — stark, dramatic and heavy on contrast — eloquently capture this powerful journey. Rather than a collection of shots of ruins and overgrown forts, the images tell an interesting truth: the story of a nation never ceases to be; it lives and grows with its people. Temples and mosques are taken over by tourism departments; a oncehunted community swells in numbers; and young lovers mark their names on the tombs of kings. The collection reflects the diversity of this landscape, from the barren terrains on the Indo-Pak border to the smiling faces of three generations of a Kalash family in Chitral, Pakistan.

Quran Class, Fakhr-ul Masjid, Karhmiri Gate, Old Delhi

Monsoon afternoon, Safdarjung’s tomb, Delhi

Dalrymple’s tryst with the lens is an equally intriguing story of change and growth. Starting with a Kodak at age seven and graduating to a Contax 35mm SLR as a teen, he spent much of his youth in the darkroom. But, the awkward and heavy cameras of the time were discarded as excess baggage, when he embarked on his career as a writer. Only a few years ago did he rediscover his passion, when he bought the nifty Samsung Edge and became familiar with the popular editing app, Snapseed. His earlier aesthetic of dark, moody landscapes — inspired by the works of Bill Brandt — once required special highcontrast papers and careful handling; today, he gleefully tells me, he spent the long journeys between locations fiddling around on his phone for a few minutes to achieve the same effect.

Heading home, Shyok gorges, Pakistan

Kalash women, Chitral, Pakistan

The unobtrusive and quick phone camera also supports his preference for guerrilla photography. “Often your best images are those that capture the fleeting moment. You whip out your camera, and you seize something that may vanish in a second. This kind of candid photography is impulsive, instinctive and intuitive, often done without forethought or planning. The best of such images have the sudden, instant perfection of a cat’s flawless, all-four-paws landing.” The image of a young boy running through Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, almost symmetrically aligned between five arches, is a perfect example.

A bansuri-playing sadhu, Orchha

Leaving Chitral, Pakistan

Though Dalrymple tries to keep some distance between his photography and his writing, the urge to tell a story seems to drive both. The story of Shah Alam, a “hopeful, goodlooking, young poet [who] is, by the end, a broken old man in a ruined palace, his eyes gouged out by the last of the Afghans,” is the story that fuels his book; while all those who have inherited a corner of Alam’s vast land have become the story of his exhibition.

The Historian’s Eye, presented by Tasveer Gallery and supported by Dauble, will be on show in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Ahmedabad.

 

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