Seeing the city, one mug at a time

‘Have you seen this ethnography on the erstwhile Volga restaurant of Connaught Place?’ I asked someone during a conversation. ‘Is it a movie, since you are asking about seeing it?’ was the immediate response. Somewhere in the last few decades, we have started using ‘seeing’ with reference to text, meaning anything from ‘coming across’ something to ‘reading the whole of it’. The sense of ‘glancing through’ was always there, but it does not quite translate the meaning intended in my question. Seeing can mean many things from beholding, observing and perceiving to visiting and understanding, and in this context, (partial) reading (you see!). You might have seen Volga before it was shut down or seen a movie on it or seen an ethnography on it, but does any of this amount to ‘seeing the city’? Is seeing something in the city same as seeing the city as such? How does one see an object that cannot be beheld in a single sight? Does seeing the city require looking at it from a great distance, a bird’s eye view, or is it about looking for singular views where the essence of the city is given in a single grain? We can observe the city fragment by fragment, given we have enough time, but can all the fragments be put together?

Samprati has beautifully captured in the previous post that seeing, watching and looking at a city is not just about pointing your eyes towards whatever object it comes across but about constantly creating specific images of the little worlds within the city. Seeing in this sense is not merely a passive exercise of letting an image enter through our eye lens. Noticing one object rather than another is itself a choice—probably not a conscious one but still a choice. From noticing an object to finding patterns to connecting the object to other objects is already participating in the making of an image. From mere noticing, one goes on to forming an image—seeing is about developing ‘forms’ through which the city makes itself available to us. We can only see coffee in the shape of the mug. We can buy those mugs, already in a given ‘form’, or create our own mugs. There is no coffee outside of those mugs.

Chiragh Dilli is our attempt to find forms (borrowed as well as our own mugs) and to observe the city in those forms. It is not just about reporting our observations. It itself is a form. The idea was born during our routines, walks and fieldwork in Delhi when we were looking for ways to express not only what we see but also what we feel, miss, dream, fear and loathe in the city. Is place just another factor in our everyday or does the city speak to us through myriad, tiny and monumental, overt and subtle, expressions? Once we started putting together these expressions in the blog, the blog started telling us what to notice, what to look for, what to wait for, where to go and how to appreciate the tiny worlds in the city overlapping and encroaching upon each other. Chiragh Dilli makes us see. Hence, the name. It literally means ‘lamp of Delhi’. But rather than illuminating an already existing scene, this lamp brings into focus new connections, which belong to as much the viewer as they belong to the view. The possibility of seeing these connections is the form that the blog has taken. A city poured into a mug.

In a conversation with a friend on Mughal miniatures, the question of perspective came up. From what point is the miniaturist seeing the view? This question already reflects on other works of art we have already ‘seen’, especially Western art, with its great points-of-view and sharp perspectives—‘scenes from a window’—as this friend pointed out. Then, do these great works of miniature lack perspectives or do they contain multiple perspectives in a single work? Or, perhaps, the miniaturists could not think of a scene outside of a narrative. One cannot just peek out of a window without being part of a tale. Can coffee be tasted without the mug?

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Jantar Mantar.

We did a post on Jantar Mantar. Like others, we were fascinated by how this unique architecture could be photographed from so many of angles, revealing a new play of light and shade in each instance. What more can one want when infinite variations are given in singular objects? Moving around the city, we realized that these variations keep appearing to us, forming a pattern that repeats itself. Focusing on the above image brings out, for example, how the dial is created by parallel lines bent inwards at 90 degrees, a unique way to make parallel lines meet. One can strip down the idea to the alternating of light and shade, as exemplified in a zebra crossing.

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Zebra crossing. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Now see the following images from a short walk at Barakhamba Road. Starting, of course, with Gopaldas Tower, where the pattern is most noticeably present.

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Gopaldas Tower.
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Even Statesman House can be said to contain some grains of the same pattern.
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Another building at Barakhamba Road.
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Yet another building.
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Keep on walking.
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You get the point!

Of course, these patterns are visible when one goes looking for them: the contribution of the eyes to the scene. From the multitude of objects, colours, shapes and distances, we draw certain patterns and connections to see the specific scenes of the city. And to bring consistency to scenes, we do not notice several things that are in plain sight. We see one mug at a time.

—Sayeed

All photographs, unless mentioned otherwise, ©Chiragh Dilli.

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