In 2020, as the pandemic and lockdown played out over weeks and months, artist and collector Shalini Passi ran out of canvas. So, she began to think about capturing the sharp lines of modern Delhi through a lens. “I am born here, I studied here, I live here, and I’ll never leave,” says Passi, of Delhi, a city she feels is the most dynamic in the world, despite the bad name it has for smog and crime.
When the situation eased after the first wave, she began stepping out at 4 a.m., before the strong summer light became too harsh for good photos. Her Nikon and Leica slung across her body, she’d walk down roads she had many memories on. Initially in a PPE suit, she abandoned that when it got too hot.
The black-and-white images, titled ‘Forever Delhi’, borne of about three to four months of shooting, almost daily, are on display in the capital at the India Design ID 2023, which concludes on February 26. This is the collection’s second outing after the AD Design Show in Mumbai in December.
Back to the 80s
“So many people, including architects and interior designers, who had grown up or studied in Delhi and now live in Mumbai came up to tell me how they remembered buildings and bridges,” says Passi, who also runs a digital platform called MASH, at the intersection of art, architecture, design, craft, and fashion.
The photos show the loneliness of the roads shorn of people. Passi remembers going down Barakhamba Road, where she studied at Modern School. “In the 80s, there was hardly any traffic there, and because I was on the athletics team, I remember running here. It was exactly the same in 2020,” she says.
In some areas, she’d encounter stray dogs that hadn’t eaten because there was no one to feed them. “We were sending out meals from our kitchen to feed people outside hospitals and places of worship, but I wasn’t prepared when a dog began to follow me around Red Fort.” She took back food the next day, but “he was no longer there”. She’d see a policeman one day, “and the next day he wouldn’t be there, because COVID-19 had probably struck”.
She’d exchange pleasantries with municipality workers, who’d ask her to take a picture. One time, under the Yamuna bridge, a family asked not to be photographed because they were illegally occupying the space.
Central Delhi is also personal to Passi, who lives in Golf Links, because her grandfather Tilak Raj built several of the structures, including Palika Bazaar, Doordarshan Bhawan and Vayu Bhavan.
Passi, who is not trained as a photographer, has been a patron of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and has a personal collection of furniture and art, from M.F. Husain to Bharti Kher. She has been quoted as saying that if she had to give up her artworks and keep just one, it would be Anita Dube’s The Theatre of Sade.
Passi is also known to loan out pieces to museums, the latest being Mrinalini Mukherjee’s 1996 hemp sculpture Kusum, lent to Frieze London.