Every city exists at multiple levels; within the layers are many tales waiting to be told. My city Delhi,  has a plethora of writers recording and archiving the many lives and many stories it has lived through. What continues to fascinate our writers, storytellers, artists, photographers about Delhi? There are those like S Paul who have been on this journey for more than fifty years. And now, there are artists like Dayanita Singh and Mayank Austen Soofi who are capturing contemporary Delhi through their photographs. I wanted to know what makes them do what they are doing in chronicling Delhi as a city.

Storytelling and photography have become dastaan makers of today. When you see a picture  by Dayanita or by Mayank you see a life, a character, a plot, a background which establishes the context.


Photograph by Mayank Austen Soofi

We are living in an age of #repost, #throwback, #instagram and pins. Not everything in the city is lovely and not all of the city is an absolute attraction to each person. We need more voices/visuals to create an ecology of aesthetics of Delhi and we see Dayanita Singh doing that through her lens, making stories by capturing lives of people who live here, “I don’t really think of geographical locations but some of my dearest friends do live in Delhi and I have been photographing them over the years- Mona Ahmed whom I started to photograph in 1989, Samara Chopra who I started to photograph in 1986… I have been the family archivist to them and many other friends, over all these years.”

Most of us Delhiites have been following Mayank Austen Soofi’s posts as Delhiwalla and we know he is creating a photo-epic on Delhi, “I like writing, I like reading and taking photos is an extension of my writing and reading. This is the world that I live in, I am attached to Delhi but I don’t believe that it’s the most special city in the world. I went to Rampur to write about the nawab, I found every street has so many stories, every person is a book. It’s more about the place I am living in, but it’s also any other city, there is no end to stories.


Mayukh Austen Soofi
The Delhiwalla at work. Photograph by Florian Morin.

What pushes Mayank is  passion for the unknown, “Delhi is a fascination, its history is being transformed. What’s happening in Delhi today? Being a writer in Delhi is a big boon, there are many layers, many of us are entering middle class, it’s interesting to see the many layers, many lives changing… It’s an amazing city – I discover  something new everyday, it’s like I am an outsider in this city … I love exploring and hanging out in bookshops, or houses of people who have books, even if you are showing it off – a Tagore in the drawing room of a house in a small neighbourhood! I always look for homes with books, they don’t need to have 500 books, even people’s houses with just 5-6 books are a story for me. In Jor Bagh I found a security guard who has 3 books, he reads and re-reads them because he can’t buy more. These are secrets that I want to uncover. I go to Daryaganj on Sundays and rummage through old book stores and feel that all my life I was looking for this book which I didn’t know existed. I just wander, roam, all my life I feel is about looking, searching, secrets are everywhere…” And in a city as old and large as this, there will always be corners and crannies which remain untouched. 

Mayank Austen Soofi flanked by the owners of Delhi’s Haaji Hotel. The one on the left is a poet. Photograph by Florian Morin.

Elsewhere, the writer in Dayanita Singh delves into finding her stories of Delhi, “I believe in Chance, and often Chance comes through conversations, so there are no fixed plans but if you came and said you wanted me to go with you to AIIMS (the All India Institute of Medical Sciences), then I might start something there. It would need to happen organically.”

“But there is an idea of following the world of the second hand book market, the paper market, and any government offices whose record rooms I can get access into. The archive fever follows me wherever I go.” 

Her passion to chronicle strums a different tune, “I don’t think I take pictures, I do not work like a photocopy machine, I make pictures. Which means that you only ‘see’ the image but there is music and literature buzzing in my head, I believe some of that translates. Whether it is a portrait of an empty room, or my mother, or an empty bottle, they are all given that hundred percent attention, the focus that I imbibed from the years of travelling with Zakir Hussain. I think perhaps some of that attention transmits, so it would follow that you look at it with the same intensity.”

Dayanita Singh
Dayanita Singh at the National Museum, Delhi, at her Museum of Chance exhibition. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Photography is at its best when it goes where there are no words, when it delves into the unsayable. It is the first language of the world, beyond literacy and geography. We just need to learn to ‘read’ images more thoroughly. We need ‘image’ scholars. I wonder what the novel of the future will be, it will certainly have an image component if not entirely made of images. Imagine the reach!”

Photograph by Florian Morin

Mayank recalls an image-story that remains etched in his mind, “On a dark night on Lodi road, I saw this man carrying half a basket of ram laddoos, which he won’t sell the next day. Here was a man walking alone, with the remains of his day, a migrant whose people are in the village, who walks around the city selling laddoos and has made the city his own.”

“I go to Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah everyday. And Khan Market remains a steady haunt. It gives you so many layers of Delhi society…neeche dukaan thi, upar makaan tha (there was a shop below and the home above)… how it’s changed. The tea wala serves tea every day, there are still the older shops, it survives in a very different way. But it’s also like a society comedy, it’s like reading Proust, with its bookshops, all rich, powerful people, maharanis expensively dressed…all the cafes….”  

It’s a constant search, this journey into images and stories, “to find and celebrate ordinariness, this is the most precious thing, the extraordinary can get ugly, can change….” That’s Delhi for you.

Cover image by Mayank Austen Soofi

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