William Dalrymple is upset. And annoyed. Disgruntled that Delhi doesn’t care two hoots for its own history. Its rich past that speaks of opulence and heritage that comprises the best of art and culture. ‘There is very little continuity of that life now. It is like a memory of a lost life,’ says Dalrymple.
Delhi’s culture is a crucial part of its assets, feels the author who has now turned curator with the exhibition Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 which was held at the Asia Society Museum in New York. The exhibition has now been catalogued in a book with the same name and published by Penguin Studio.
‘The problem is, Delhi is unloved. It is like an orphan city. Very few people are aware of its history. I hope the book will draw people’s attention to all the rich heritage remaining here. There are lots of people who are interested in looking around, reading plaques put up by the Archaeological Society of India,’ says the hopeful author.
But he is also upset that he couldn’t get the exhibition to travel to India. ‘It’s a tragedy that it didn’t come to Delhi. I tried to bring it here but it costs around $2 million. No institution in India is funded to that level,’ he adds.
‘This is the first such exhibition of late Mughal art. I don’t understand why that is. To my mind, these are some of the greatest paintings ever produced,’ retorts Dalrymple. In fact, the author-curator calls it his ‘love letter to Delhi’.
The book deals with Mughal rulers post Aurangzeb and comprises essays that deal with subjects like ‘The Revival of the Mughal Painting Tradition During the reign of Muhammad Shah’, ‘James Skinner and the Poetic Climate of Late Mughal Delhi’ etc by various experts and also pictures.
Does the format of the bookmake it top heavy? ‘The idea is you have a record of the exhibition and body of research generated by it. Most people will be interested in the pictures though,’ he explains.
Why is Dalrymple so enamoured by the Mughals? ‘There is a widespread perception that nothing interesting happened after Aurangzeb. That it was all a decadence story. [Bahadur Shah] Zafar screws up the uprising. But that’s so far from the truth,’ says Dalrymple.
And he would like to change the popular perception that nothing happened after Aurangzeb’s death. ‘Urdu poetry and literature flourished. And also extraordinary art,’ he says. The Fraser Album, for instance, documents the peak moments of genius in Indian art. ‘There is a moment when everything crystallises. Planets come into alignment. Mughals is one such period. But it is interesting how so little is written about post Aurangzeb,’ says the author.
For the moment though, it is Pahari art that has captured Dalrymple’s imagination. And he has already left Delhi for Dharamsala to trace the life of the painter Nainsukh from Guler. ‘I am leaving tonight,’ Dalrymple told Millennium Post.
How different is Delhi now when compared to Mughal era? ‘It’s a different world,’ admits Dalrymple. ‘The city was then known for sweetness of Urdu, manners, extraordinary beauty and ascetic appearance of the city. I will leave it to the readers to decide how much remains,’ he says, laughing.