Once upon a time, when the smog hadn't settled on Delhi like it does now, a wiry young man would turn his lens on history and capture them for posterity. Starting from 1966, the man — known to the world as Raghu Rai — would peel the layers of the city like one peels an onion and get to the crux of it, always coming up with shots that remain frozen in the history of time.
But Rai wishes time stood still in Delhi even though he hails progress. 'The romance of Delhi is long gone,' he rues. Rai dislikes the way Delhi has changed over the years and feels modernisation has taken away from the essence of the city. 'The change is directionless with no aesthetics. It is haphazard growth,' he says, adding: 'The ancient India feel is long gone. The modern architecture is nothing great. We are lost in between.'
Rai has now attempted to recreate Delhi's past, although briefly, with a solo exhibition titled Delhi... that was. The exhibition has 51 photographs which capture monuments and slices of life in a Delhi that is now lost forever to the ravages of time.
He hates the chaotic construction that has happened around the monuments. 'When I started back in 1966, there were wheat fields behind Humayun's Tomb and behind that one could see railway tracks. That ethos and feel of old Hindustan is now gone. Progress is fine but there is no aesthetics in the cityscape anymore,' says the ace photographer.
The photographs span four decades of Rai's works. 'These capture scenes of Delhi that are not possible today because the monuments, skyline and landscape have changed,' explains curator Anubhav Nath. The works are up for sale for those interested and start at Rs 51,000.
These include black and white and coloured shots on various subjects and offer a slice of both traditional and contemporary India. From Safdarjung's tomb to Humayun's Tomb (of which there are multiple shots capturing myriad moments), Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk, the river Yamuna and Red Fort before it was fenced off and given the artificial driveway look — there are many photographs which document the passage of time in Delhi.
So how has Delhi changed over the years? 'The effect of globalisation is very strong. The youth is lost in that. It is a hotch potch now. The kind of clothes people wear when they go to the monuments just don't blend anymore,' Rai says. He is not too fond, either, of the changes that have happened inside the monuments. 'They have just made lawns inside the monuments, nothing else,' he rues.
And which parts of Delhi still manage to attract him enough to capture them on camera? Rai lists Jama Masjid, Red Fort, the Mehrauli area, old delhi, Tughlaqabad and Old Fort as his favourites. 'These areas still have large chunks of landscape which relate to the essence of old Delhi,' he says. Since there is no way one can turn back time, we are only left with Rai's images to look back with fondness at what we have lost.
At: Ojas Art, 1AQ, Qutab Minar Main Roundabout
On Till: 9 December
Timings: 11 am to 7 pm