Felix Beato arrived in Delhi when the city was just recovering from the 1857 revolt. In 1858, Delhi was desolate and bleak; a city that had only just begun to pick up the pieces. Beato, an Italian British photographer noted for his war photography, became the first man to photograph Delhi as it stood war weary and subdued. He was, of course, unable to photograph the actual military campaign, but managed to capture the battleground and other places of note in the campaign, photographing ruined buildings, deserted streets and new British graves.
Beato's Delhi is featured in Penguin's re-release of the book by the same name. Reproducing his work, alongside 1997 photographs of the same sites taken by Jim Masselos, Beato's Delhi: 1857 and Beyond offers a unique view of a city long gone and sheds light on how Delhi has transformed since then.
Substantial parts of Delhi were demolished or radically altered in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt and Jim Masselos' photographs capture the changed between then and now, both the obvious and the implicit. An 1858 photograph taken by Beato shows Jama Masjid being used as a field kitchen for British forces from Punjab stationed in Delhi post the re-conquest. The ridge, used as battleground, stands rocky and barren. The front façade of the Imperial Bank Building in Chandni Chowk is riddled with bullets. As Beato recorded the last embers of the Revolt, his pictures also contributed to some of the myth making about the mutiny, becoming a record of the memory and icons.
Turning the pages of Beato's Delhi, one is transported back, and the pictures recreate a city that had just been vanquished. Juxtaposed with the present day pictures of the same sites, with the Jama Masjid open to visitors, the Red Fort a major historical attraction, Chandni Chowk a bustling market place and the city itself alive and pulsating, the change is even more striking. To help readers place and situate the places photographed, two pictorial maps act as end pages.
The prints are supplemented by informative and illuminating texts by Jim Masselos and Narayani Gupta, a consultant with INTACH and a retired professor of history at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. While Masselos provides the context to Beato's work, Gupta analyses the actual ‘ways of seeing', by trying to understand how the city has been viewed and perceived for decades. Reminding us of when these photos were taken, Gupta says that these images are also significant because they were the first examples of photography in and of Delhi. There had been romanticized drawings and paintings of the capital before, but Beato captured things as they were. Of course, when Beato photographed the Red Fort or Jama Masjid, he wasn't looking at them as historical monuments.
This book isn't just a visual delight; it is also a treasure trove for Delhi buffs. It takes up the challenge of recreating history, and succeeds beautifully. Sepia prints of Beato's work, Masselos' photographs and Gupta's succinct descriptions come together to celebrate the capital's resilience and survival.
Bottomline: A unique view of a city long gone
Beato's Delhi: 1857 and Beyond; Jim Masselos and Narayani Gupta, Viking/Penguin, Rs. 1,499.