It doesn’t strike us as being odd, but we have an odd way of looking at the non-personal past. Take all the pre-1947 photographs with national leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi in them. The black and white photos unobtrusively force us to believe that the world they inhabited was also a black and white one, shorn of any colour that we find ourselves swimming in.
We not only associate World War II with black and white photographs but, unlike, say the ongoing war in Afghanistan, we inextricably link it with black and white, where blood was very dark grey and bandages white. Which is why restored colour photos taken by photographers such as Life magazine’s Frank Scherschel of WW 2 troops marching along lush, colourful gardens in the French countryside and of survivors in devastated towns appear so ridiculously ‘touched up’ to us. And yet, despite what our brains have trained us to believe, the world was always in colour. Before India’s independence. During the great famines in the 1770s. When the Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad were built, first during the 2nd century BCE and then again during the 6th-7th centuries. The world was in colour before humans even started recording it. Not unnatural black and white or sepia, but full-blooded colour.
But we impose another kind of ‘optical illusion’ on ‘pre-colour’ history without which we find things a bit suspicious: the look of oldness, of wear and tear, and, in many cases, of appearing ruinous and uninhabitable.
Two Sundays ago, I visited Humayun’s Tomb in Nizamuddin East with a few friends. The tomb, surrounded by other structures and sumptuous, sprawling gardens, was commissioned by Humayun’s first wife Bega Begum some 10 years after Emperor Humayun’s sudden death in 1556 after he fell down a staircase in Purana Qila. Designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, a Persian architect, this was the first garden-tomb in the subcontinent. Last month, under the expert watch of conservation architect Ratish Nanda of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture — whose astounding restorative work I first experienced when I visited the Babur Gardens near Kabul, where Humayun’s father is buried — the restored Humayan’s Tomb was unveiled to the public.
I’m no expert. But in that early October morning, the salmon pinks looked salmon pink again, the blue tiles bursting with ultramarine were scattering blue. The pink-white stone facades, polished and restored according to its original 16th century design, formed a living structure. Sitting in an alcove next to a row of orange trees, even as I stared at the central white-domed structure in the distance on October 6, 2013, I could have been in October 6, 1613. All it required was me to believe that colour existed then as it exists now.
But the question of ‘authenticity’ had to crop up. Unused to seeing heritage structures that sparkle tastefully, the brain does start asking, “But isn’t it a bit too shiny, a bit too new-looking for a Mughal monument?” The nearby Purana Qila, parts of which existed much before Humayun’s time, and the Khair-ul-Manzil Masjid opposite the Quila that was constructed in 1561, both maintain a glorious ‘ruins’ look. The pre-Mughal Lodhi structures scattered across Delhi provide us with the pleasure of appreciating ‘Gothic’ structures, an appreciation that we have come to have via 19th century European Romanticism’s love for ruins as depicted most famously in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1825 painting, Ruins of Eldena (Monastery).
I love these structures and understand the beauty they have gained by having turned into the precarious, nibbled-away buildings that they have over time. It is the same way the armless Greek statuette of Venus de Milo and the headless Gandharva statue of Kanishka look far more beautiful and mysterious than if her arms and his head were not chipped away and chopped off. So the restored Humayun’s Tomb and its adjoining structures become even more glorious as they retain their beauty even as they allow us to register how the past really looks like without being dolled up in sepia or artful deterioration.
More than any books I’ve read or photos I’ve seen, it is being inside the precincts of the restored Humayun’s Tomb that makes me know for sure that history was always inhabited by flesh and blood people like you and me. And it comforts me that people like you and me — by the colour photos that we take on our phones and cameras as well as by being part of a landscape of steel and glass structures — will also be considered flesh and blood in the centuries to come.