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Visions of two cities

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Old Delhi New York;C.S.H. Jhabvala, Lustre Press Roli Books 2008
Old Delhi New York;C.S.H. Jhabvala, Lustre Press Roli Books 2008

KRISHEN KHANNA

With an unerring eye for detail, Jhabvala documents the metamorphosis of two metropolises.

Quite truly the best things happen unasked — maybe the worst ones do so too! Receiving this book for a review was unsolicited and was like meeting an old friend quite by chance after a very long time. The book itself is superb and would do credit to any library, public or private in which it is housed.

Knowing that Jhabvala is an architect, one would have expected the drawings to be of the architectural kind which accompany plans sent to clients — precise, clinical and made to exude an atmosphere of comfort and elegance all of which is not so. These drawings have none of that. Jhabvala’s draftsmanship is obvious enough and appears at a time when something called “cutting edge” is much in vogue.

There seems to be an unspoken idea which relegates the skills of drawing and draughtsmanship to the backburner. Fortunately however, there still are a number of artists who have honed their skills as draftsmen and whose work commands attention. I am reminded of my friend David Gentleman, an artist in London whose work is a counterpart to Jhabvala’s. Neither believes in being slapdash or purposely ambiguous. Both have drawn from the urban landscape. Yet they are so different each in his own way being faithful to the culture they were reared in.

Jhabvala has an unerring eye for detail, which fortunately is also accompanied by a sense of discretion. All details are not uniformly depicted. Each is appropriate to its location and nowhere do they demand equal attention. The eye has to wander into nooks and corners, gaze at people performing their various duties, peep into windows which incidentally is a kind of voyeurism common in the clustered city of Old Delhi.

Faithful to the original

In the drawings and watercolours of the city, Jhabvala, though aware of the formal necessities in art, does not surrender his vision of the street or the haunting qualities of a ruined monument, to a complete transformation into some kind of purist abstraction. He always remains faithful to his original vision. Of course liberties are taken such as a camera never could. Each addition or subtraction is introduced to enhance the spirit and the ethos of the location. Perhaps this is Romantic but it never becomes sentimental or melodramatic. He exercises restraint and has an uncanny sense of measure which prevents his drawing from slipping into sentimentality.

David Gentleman faces the problem of reconciling the formal values of art with the sensations, emotions which the outside world generated in him. Instead of manipulating the pictorial elements and forcing them to comply with pictorial, formal needs, he scans situations which visibly contain the formal elements. An example is the painting of a partially harvested field which has two furrows disappearing to a point on the horizon. I have no doubt that there was more to this work than meets the eye. My point in mentioning Gentleman is merely to show that draughtsmanship as a common virtue needs perception to produce something worthwhile and which will generate very different experiences.

Potent writing

It was but natural for Jhabvala to devote a great deal of time to monuments, palaces and bazaars of Old Delhi. He knew them and loved them well. His writings, which accompany each drawing, are ever bit as potent. The historical and sociological information he provides is to the point and, to many of us, was unknown before reading Jhabvala. Not for a moment is he boring or supercilious. He is quizzical and witty, very like himself. His comment that Delhi can never be New and New York, forever renewing itself, can never be Old says a great deal of both civilisations and by implication of the people who populate these civilisations. I have a fair idea of what he would say to the wrecking of huge buildings by the authorities that be and then revoking orders when facing public outcry and at a quick look at forthcoming elections. The devastation caused on Mahatma Gandhi Road reminds me of bombed out sights sites in London during the last war. These buildings, battered down, partially or whole, don’t make great ruins, unlike those of the seven Delhis which time has weathered or destroyed.

I know that Jhabvala could not have drawn every ruin or every street of Delhi. As he says, it is a personal account and not an historical record. Nevertheless, I miss Jamali and Kamali’s tomb — he must have seen it as he covers the Qutub and its environs in some detail. But this is only stating my wish!

Precision

Quite different is the ambience of the drawings and paintings of New York. That city, which is in a perpetual state of renewal, is like an enormous piece of sculpture, a man-made mountain which could grow only in one direction — vertically, into the sky. It is beautiful and intimidating breeding a population which is energetic, forceful and apparently brash but with a great heart. Jhabvala’s drawings envisage aspects of this city so forcefully and so intimately. It is pervaded with a sense of permanence which really is not so as the forces of renewal and change alter whole localities. I could vaguely recognise parts of 52nd Street which I knew well. In spite of the iron girders and beams, Jhabvala focuses on little corners, brownstones which will disappear as others have done before. It is a city full of localities with changing fortunes. He could not have visited so many features and he has loyally stayed with what he has known. The precision which marks his work is apparent in these drawings and paintings.

The colours in the New York paintings are more subdued and harmonious than the ones of bazaars in Old Delhi. Maybe he thought that the kind of brightness which fills the Delhi paintings is appropriate to the subject.

The book opens with a very sensitive introduction by James Ivory. It is compact but says much. Jhabvala has a short piece beautifully written making it amply clear that the views expressed in this book are his own and he does not claim it to be a work of scholarship.

Roli Books are to be congratulated for the great production of this work and for having added another beautiful book to their already remarkable collection


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