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Often, the most interesting things happen when you’re not prepared: William Dalrymple

Author William Dalrymple on his first book of photographs, why he doesn’t write bleak novels and his next project — a book on the East India Company.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | New Delhi |
Updated: March 27, 2016 1:41:56 pm
William Dalrymple, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, The Writer’s Eye, The Anarchy, East India Company, Jaipur Literature Festival, photography, Dalrymple in his Chhatarpur residence. (Source: Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

At his Chhatarpur residence, Scottish author William Dalrymple is sprawled on the drawing room sofa, a small photobook in his hands. The Writer’s Eye is the 51-year-old’s visual ode to his travels over the last 18 months, “from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna.” Set to release alongside exhibitions in Delhi and London (one in Goa opened on March 18), the book — his first collection of photographs — has been curated by author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. In this interview, Dalrymple talks about his interest in photography, handling controversies at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and his upcoming project.

I wondered — when I heard about your photo-book — whether it would give viewers a glimpse into the way you work. Does it?

It has been a project between books. I was searching for ideas and I was travelling a lot. There was no idea to make a book, it wasn’t a conscious project at all. All of the photographs are from the last 18 months — most from the last six months. I kept boring my friends, I suppose, by posting them on Facebook and Instagram. One of my friends, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, suggested an exhibition and I jumped at the idea. He found three galleries to take the show to and Harper Collins said they’re going to publish a book. For most projects — in order to get them done — you bang your head against the wall and eventually break through. This one is a nice free gift, in a sense. But I have now got my teeth into my next project — The Anarchy.

Which camera did you use?

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All the photos were taken from the lovely little camera in Samsung Note. Then, over a year ago, someone showed me Snapseed. When I have spare time, I sit, playing around, producing 20 or 30 different versions of a picture. I find it very relaxing — editing photos. As a child, I used to spend my life in darkrooms, messing around with prints. In those days, one used to go in after lunch and come out at night — stinking of chemicals and with terrible stains all over one’s shirts. These days, you can do it sitting on a sofa and watching TV.

The age of Instagram and Snapchat — among others — has democratised the medium of photography. How do you feel about that?

There are obviously both pros and cons. Moving from vinyl to CDs meant that you gained in terms of, for example, portability. But in many ways, the sound is more compressed. Listening to 12 hours of vinyl suddenly sounds richer. With phone photography too, you lose in terms of pixels, lenses, wide angle frames, light meters, depth and shutter speed. On the other hand, it is the most discreet form of photography. Often in writing and in photography, the most interesting things happen when you’re not prepared or when you haven’t got your camera with you. (Henri) Cartier Bresson always used to say that shooting with a Leica — which in those days was the smallest, most discreet and quietest camera — was like being a guerilla. You’re able to surprise people when you least expect it. The same is true — even more so — with cellphone cameras. I was up in Nagaland doing a story last week, interviewing ex-head hunters who are now Baptist Christians and people thought I was just checking my messages. I haven’t taken my camera out of the bag ever since I have got this, really.

You started photography at the age of seven, I believe?

Yeah, like anyone else who was given a camera as a child — shooting terrible family pictures. I got serious at the age of 15-16. People who knew me back then thought of me as a photographer. I hadn’t started writing; I had no idea I could write. This is what I did in my spare time. Other guys were chasing girls or were in the pubs, I was there in the darkroom every Saturday night, cropping and playing with prints. When I started writing in the university, that slowly faded. So, really, this is a continuity of what I was doing at the age of 19-20.

Looking back at my old works, stylistically, they are very similar. It was also the influences of photographers such as Bill Brandt and Cartier Bresson, Fay Godwin and (Robert) Capa. There was something about the grainy, dark photographs that always caught my imagination. India is the best place in the world for colour photography, yet there’s something about a good black-and-white image — something elemental and powerful if done right.

The images here are a mix, taken everywhere, from your home in Scotland to India and Afghanistan.

It is a very unformed project. It’s not a photographic study of, say, Afghanistan or Bamyan. It’s totally scattered and completely random. The only coherence is in the form. They’re all black and white, all taken from the cellphone. An Iranian fort seems to work perfectly well next to an old Delhi kabootar haat. Siddharth made the decision not to caption it. He wanted them to be judged as art works — rather than travel photos — which I think is an interesting decision.

But do you think there’s a method in your madness, so to speak?

It certainly reflects the places that have interested me and where I have been looking for stories. Most of them are pretty bleak and out of the way. Ladakh, Bamyan, Mazar-i-Sharif, Yazdan and eastern Iran — which is like the Jaisalmer of Iran — there is an end-of-the-line feeling about it. There is a tone of darkness and bleakness to it, which surprised me. I’m not a dark guy — I don’t write bleak books.

As the co-director of the JLF, you have handled many controversies over the years. Do you feel there is a heightened climate of intolerance now — especially against the writers’ community?

This is not new. Without question, the most dramatic example of censorship in modern Indian history is the Emergency. Satanic Verses was banned by Rajiv Gandhi. This is an ongoing battle that writers have to face with any government — one just has to keep fighting. Certainly this is a serious matter, but I don’t think this is a black-and-white, open-and-shut case. There is much to lament about the government’s attitude to freedom of speech. I am aware that this is particularly working in regional languages and in parts where there is a strong RSS or Shiv Sena presence. But, if you ask me about the micro-climate of Jaipur, there is no question that Vasundhara Raje’s government has been enthusiastic about having Pakistani authors. She sent her own attorneys to defend us in court against the challenge and safety of the venue.

Can you tell us more about The Anarchy?

Not a word is written yet, it’s monstrous. My previous three books (Return of a King, White Mughals, The Last Mughal) have all been micro-histories. This covers 60 years — the story of how East India Company — a cooperation — took over India. It deals with all sorts of aspects of history that I’m not necessarily, at the moment, qualified to write on. I’m not a student of economics and the whole business about how the East India Company as an economic unit functioned can be overwhelming. Through things in Indian history that sound dull and stodgy — like the granting of the Diwani — you suddenly realise that what’s actually happening is privatisation. When the East India Company went bust in 1774, three million pounds were released by the regulating act passed in Parliament to bail it out. That did not happen to the Lehman brothers. It’s a story of the battle between a cooperative and state interest and is an examination of how badly wrong a cooperation can go.

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