How many houses can you count in Jhabvala’s portrayal of this Old Delhi lane?

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‘Square Near Esplanade Road’, watercolour by C.S.H. Jhabvala.

The buildings are tall. They are densely packed together. Some go really high, adding yet another half-floor, covered by a slanted tin-shade. Others fall short in claiming their position in the skyline, only because they are next to tall ones. Yet, two-thirds of this watercolour is devoted to depiction of the sky, covered in dark and glowering clouds. The remaining one-third is filled with tiny shapes in different colours, depicting various objects—clothes, doors, wheels, a flag, antennas, wood logs, pipes, cables, baskets, plates, etc. It is the patterned repetition of vertical lines, windows and balconies that communicate the sense of buildings. Walls are only partially visible behind clothes hung out to dry and signboards, which themselves are hidden behind clothes. The closed shutters of the shops, in bright, but saturated, colours indicate that it is morning or an off day, former being more likely. It is probably not very early morning since the portable shops on pushcarts have their full wares on display, though still waiting for customers. The television antennas indicate that it is a scene from the nineties and since there are not too many of them, it must be the early nineties or late eighties. How many of these impressions can still be noticed while walking in Old Delhi lanes today?

A starting point to understand the architectures of congestion is to start counting the number of layers—of walls, buildings, floors, objects, motifs, stairs and so on. Spatially, what hides what? And temporally, what might have been built before and what might have been added later? The artist has left a clue in the figure of the road, one of the most visible objects in the painting in the absence of traffic, gloomier than the clouds above and standing in direct contrast to the vibrant colours on buildings. On the left side, the road ends in another layer of houses, probably forming a right angle with the layer of houses in front of us. This is the only clue of the space being a square. The work is titled ‘Square Near Esplanade Road’, somewhere near Chandni Chowk, one of the many depictions of streets of Old Delhi by Cyrus Jhabvala.

Another work called ‘Street Scene: Chandni Chowk’, takes us up close to buildings, somewhere else in Chandni Chowk. In this painting, the shops are open, clothes on balconies are still visible but they no longer hide the signboards. One of the significant depictions is of deteriorating upper stories. The cracks are disturbingly big. Parts of one balcony appear as if they might collapse any minute. The walls of lower stories are not visible, being hidden by other layers. Most of the signboards are perfectly legible. A Pepsi banner suggests that this scene might be of a later year compared to the above work. The Hindi typography depicted in the painting has fewer variations than the English ones. Earlier, signboards used to be mostly written in a bright colour against a white or yellow background. In recent years, text in lighter colours against bright backgrounds has become more common. This is one of the few changes that have occurred since the time of this watercolour. The rest of the scene, one can still hope to find walking in some of these lanes. Jhabvala’s words seem almost reassuring, ‘in spite of its flyovers and brand-new multistories, [Delhi] has preserved itself’. Is that about-to-collapse balcony still there? Probably it is; thoroughly repaired and hidden under some flex banners with white text on a red background.

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‘Street Scene: Chandni Chowk’.

Cracks in the walls are also among the many elements that signify disorientation. This is a key feature of architectures of congestion. You feel disoriented, distracted and lost as you enter a congested neighbourhood. It takes sometime for the eye to decide which part to focus on. It is almost impossible to look at the whole scene as a whole. Our eyes achieve a broadening of vision–unity of perception–only by recognizing a pattern. This pattern might be based on identity, e.g., windows of a building might be similar, or association, e.g., all things green in a landscape can be safely assumed to be vegetables. Looking at any of the Jhabvala’s depictions of congestion, these two ways of recognizing patterns do not work. But this disorientation does not lead to loss of focus; within a few minutes, the eyes finds new ways to find patterns. One can notice all the signboards at a time, or all the windows, or all vertical or horizontal lines forming the many layers of perception. Is it possible to put all these layers of perception together in a single view?

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The watercolour ‘Street Scene: Old Delhi’ portrays more variations in houses, with different degrees of completion and/or deterioration. There is more wood visible, used in different ways. The street is quite broad though most parts of it is taken up by vendors and parking.
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‘Lanes in the Walled City of Delhi’ beautifully captures the curved lanes and houses.
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‘Sunday Bazaar at the Lal Qila’ looks at the bazaar from behind the shops. Roofs of the shops form the most prominent horizon line after the Lal Qila wall. The first roof is made of clay tiles, the next one of canvas, then tin, then bamboo and then again canvas. Some roofs are sloped towards the front, some towards the sides and most towards the back. This legendary bazaar on the riverside of Lal Qila was discontinued after the terrorist attack in 2000, but most of the forms, designs and styles seen in the painting are still alive in the weekly bazaars of Delhi.

There is an eerie idleness to these images; at the same time, there is a speedy movement, depending on which layer you chose to focus on. But then, is vision ever a choice?

—Sayeed

Watercolours taken from the book Old Delhi, New York: Personal Views by C.S.H. Jhabvala, the first gift Chiragh Dilli has received. 

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