David Bailey has been waging a war against clichés for a while now. The 74-year-old British photographer's most famous victory came after he joined the British edition of Vogue magazine as its fashion photographer and went on to create The Swinging Sixties. Stripping away post-War drabness from British aesthetics, Bailey hitched a ride on the pop cultural bus that came into town, injected a classy Edwardian sense of glamour and 'fun is serious' element into his photographs and created a sturdy, pulsating bridge connecting art and life. Capturing Catherine Deneuve posing with a startlingly colour-drained flamingo, Twiggy, Rudolf Nureyev, the Beatles, Mick Jagger and other deities of 20th century mythology in his signature black and white portraits, Bailey became the creator-cum-documenter of 'high' pop cultural London.
Some 50 years later, Bailey trains his camera on another city and to take on the clichés swirling around it. If for the Swinging 60s set Delhi was the sensory pit-stop for an India made out of the images of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Mother Teresa, squalour, cows, Maharajas, Ravi Shankar and spiritual journeys (sic) of the kind made by the Beatles and Steve Job, today, new clichés of Delhi abound. Hooked on to the grand narrative of an India 2012 lies the anti-cliché of an economic success story, Bollywood flash, everyone-has-a-mobile, the festival of cable TV channels and construction booms. But as Bailey knows all too well, the opposite of a cliché is yet another cliché. Which visual slabs of Delhi does one collate? The elephants and sadhus? Or the BPOs and (mechanical) cranes in Gurgaon? Which is what the dilemma in Delhi Dilemma, Bailey's two-volume photographic collection of capturing the essence of urban India through its national capital is all about.
What Bailey does is not get bothered about things like 'capturing the soul' of Delhi - in other words, obsess about taking pictures that are immediately identifiable as 'Dilli/Delhi'. Instead, he sees things in Delhi that he clicks with documentary zeal and then puts them back in the form of a loose, mise en scène-kind of narrative to set up his tale of one city. The 'dilemma' is solved by seeking out images in between the clichés and setting his story in Delhi, not making it a story of Delhi.
Take the image strewn across two pages in the book of the ceiling of a non-multiplex cinema that Bailey holds for us. Along with the old-world matinees charm of the swirling '1950s' pattern - you can make out that it's a cinema ceiling only because the preceding pages of the book display a running 'old movie cinema' visual tale - the photo is reminiscent of the surface of a cake and at the same time a 'purana' feeling that's part-childhood and part-fairy tale illustration (I am reminded of the drawings by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his The Little Prince).
Indian street signs and hoardings are fodder for both photographers conversant with our culture as well as those just documenting them as visiting anthropologists. Bailey uses this cliché and turns it into something new and serrated in his photograph of what is really an ugly double-blocked building that has been tattooed with the kind of 'inventive' scrawl-advertising that we take for granted. 'Lovely Handicraft(s)' is inked all over the cracked walls of this building as if on the back of a desi biker dude's bull neck.
Bailey's cliché-crunching prowess absolutely shines through in a group portrait of three sadhus. The black-and-whiteness of the image immediately connects us to Bailey's iconic portraits of musicians. Here, the three figures - a young man wrapped in a white robe with his hands clasped in front, an old man with a vest and hitched up dhoti looking into the came with rock'n'roll mirth, and the gentleman seated regally with a namabali thrown across his body - could very well be an incarnation of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of the supergroup Cream. It's just that instead of guitars and leather jackets, these cats are marked by caste-marks on their foreheads. Bailey finds and puts on display the swagger of sadhus.
Delhi Dilemma is full of such discoveries. For people expecting a beautiful Dilli darshan, these photos are not the objects of your choice. But if you want to see Delhi through eyes that refuse to come up with a unifying big picture, Bailey's visual landmarks and snapshots will be familiar and yet at the same time new, fleeting and yet in repose; of Delhi and yet not of Delhi©.