A candid chat with William Dalrymple discussing ‘The Writer’s Eye’

A candid chat with William Dalrymple discussing ‘The Writer’s Eye’


Written by Monica Arora
A candid chat with William Dalrymple discussing ‘The Writer’s Eye’
Meeting ‘The William Dalrymple’ for an interview in flesh and blood at his Mehrauli farmhouse was enough to set the fan girl in me catapulting in sheer delight. Amidst banyan trees, basking goats and scurrying chickens right at the entrance of his sprawling home, his lovely wife, Olivia, greeted me with an apologetic “he is on his way”. She was preparing for her own painting exhibition at New York and I met up with them just a few hours before their departure.

Extremely earthy and with a keen eye for all things natural and organic, every nook and cranny at the farm essayed ethnicity and a strong flavor of India, and yet it wasn’t overwhelming. The energy was very positive and I just was looking around when William arrived in his flamboyant style, muttering apologies.

Poised like a nawab on his very cosy couch, punctuated with warm colours and snug cushions, he perched himself very comfortably in the TV Room and after ordering a pot of exotic green tea for the two of us, said “Shoot”. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

1. Historian, acclaimed author, Jaipur Literary Festival Director and co-founder, and now exhibited photographer…you indeed wear many feathers in your cap. Any hidden talents that we are yet to unravel?

Only my next book is on the anvil. Let me explain it by using an interesting analogy. Do you know the difference between Indian cooking and Chinese cooking? In Indian cooking one needs to start preparing, pampering and working around the ingredients for a while, say over an hour or so, in between tasks, to ensure that a nice dal is ready by lunch. In Chinese cooking, the chef spends a couple of hours before hand for finely chopping the vegetables and other ingredients and the cooking per se takes about 15 minutes. In my case, I spend years researching and collating material for my book (as in the case of my latest one) but the actual writing takes only a few months. The research is so methodical and precise that it doesn’t take me longer than that.

A candid chat with William Dalrymple discussing ‘The Writer’s Eye’

2. The collection of images in the exhibition ‘The Writer’s Eye’ is evocative and awe-inspiring to say the least and offer detailed insights into certain historical monuments or geographical details in others. How did you develop a “writer’s eye” for such intricate observations?

It is of course difficult- and maybe even dangerous- for any artist to analyse his own work, but looking now at these images of mine culled from the last eighteen months of travels from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna, I think they also show a rather different palette to that visible in my writing. Certainly they have been inspired by the same travels and there are common themes—Mughal architecture, the ruins of Afghanistan, the domes of Golconda—but the photographs show I think a taste for the dark and remote, the moody and the atmospheric, perhaps even the Gothic, that I don’t think is there in my books or articles and which slightly surprises even me.

If I was to look for a source, I suspect they draw deeply on the images that impregnated my Scottish childhood and youth. I was brought up on the cold and wind-swept shores of the Firth of Forth, looking out over the breakers of the North Sea, and educated at a curious monastic school in the wild, bleak sheep-tracts of the Yorkshire Moors. My first 18 years were spent far from any metropolis, under dark Northern skies, right on the edge of things. The remote places celebrated in these photographs reflect I think a taste for the austere, ascetic and windswept forms of those years.

Photography for me long preceded writing. In fact it is in my blood. My Calcutta-born, part-Bengali great great aunt was Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the greatest photographers of the 19th century. As a child in Scotland, I used to leaf through her portraits in the albums we had at home.

I have taken photographs since I was first given a tiny Kodak for my seventh birthday, but when I was 15, I bought a fabulous Contax 35mm SLR with a pin-sharp Carl Zeiss T* lens. I always preferred black and white, partly because it allowed me to develop and edit my own prints; but mainly because black and white seemed a much more daring and exciting world, full of artistic possibilities. As a teenager, I particularly admired the bleak and grainy war photography of Don McCullin and the landscape work of Fay Godwin. But my real hero was Bill Brandt, whose the darkly brooding images were marked by a stark chiaroscuro, a strongly geometrical sense of composition, a whiff of the surreal and a taste for the uncanny and unsettling.

Inspired by Brandt, I always tried to push my prints to make them as gritty as possible, and used to prefer grainy HP5 film, and high contrast papers. In time, I won a couple of regional and then national young photographer awards. At Cambridge, it was penning a review of a Fay Godwin show for the student paper that first led me into journalism and writing. When I went on my long-haul journey in the footsteps of Marco Polo, the subject of my first book In Xanadu, I took as much care with the photographs as I did with my notes, and the book is filled with my black and white shots from the journey. This became the material of my first large scale photographic exhibition, Hajj: An Islamic Pilgrimage.

In time, however, writing took over from photography as my artistic outlet… It is only in the last eighteen months, since I jettisoned my last Blackberry for a Samsung Note, that I have rediscovered my passion for photography. I now have an excellent little camera tucked away permanently in my back pocket.

The primary inspiration has been my travels, and this collection is a record of a restless year, between books, when I took the opportunity to visit some of the world’s most remote places, especially in Central Asia. I’ll never forget the astonishing flight last year over the rib-cage of the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, the dark slopes all etched in ice, each river valley white against the black granite of range after range of folding mountains. In the centre of the Pamirs, on the roof of the world mid-way from Kabul to Bamiyan, there are no signs of any habitation: it is a clear, empty, silent landscape lined with frozen crevice-skeletons of unmelted snow in the crevices. In many ways it feels a primaeval landscape, as untouched by man as when the lava had first dried from first volcanoes of the world.

A candid chat with William Dalrymple discussing ‘The Writer’s Eye’

3. Clichéd question but amongst the myriad images on display at ‘The Writer’s Eye’, which is the closest to your heart and why?

Bamiyan means The Place of Shining Light, and there is indeed something quite out-of-the-ordinary about the clarity and sharp, high-altitude intensity of the light illuminating this hidden valley, hanging suspended in the Hindu Kush. As we touched down on the high altitude airstrip, the lines of poplars all around us were turning a molten Autumnal yellow against the pale salmon-pink of the cliffs. Here, even at a distance, the bright slanting morning light picked out with great precision the strangely moving vision of the two vast empty niches. There is a real and significant presence here still, even in the absence of the figures they once contained.

Other fruitful sources of images have been treks through the stupa and mani walls of Ladakh; visits to Yazd, Pasargardae and the deserts of western Iran; a journey along the Ganges looking for ittar in Kannauj; the marshes and causeways of coastal Northumbria; even the bizarre Kandinsky-like irrigation works in ther desert fringes of Idaho. The chaos of the chowks of Lucknow and the crumbling Paigah palaces of old Hyderabad were also fruitful hunting grounds, as were summer walks through the olive hills of Tuscany and the bleak but beloved beaches of my Scottish childhood, with their extraordinary rock strata and violent geomorphology.

A candid chat with William Dalrymple discussing ‘The Writer’s Eye’

4. Reclusive author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi whose writings are akin to thoughts floating on paper has curated the show and also described the photographs in the book released at the exhibition. How did this project evolve from conception to realization?

Two years ago, at dinner with Dattaraj and Dipti Salgaocar, Siddharth looked at my photos and suggested I should “grow” this body of work. I agreed. Six months ago, I sent him a strong suite of pictures, they whittled it to 35, which eventually were show in Goa at Sunaparanta Art Centre, now in Delhi at Vadhera Art Gallery and later in London at Grosvenor this year. HarperCollins, chipped in to publish the book and here is The Writer’s Eye.

5. Your documentary on ‘White Mughals’ by BBC currently airing on Discovery Channel is an extremely engaging and interesting piece of history. Do you think the visual medium, be it a film or photographs is more powerful or effective vis-à-vis books?

Yes, it is. Photographs as a purely visual medium and film as an audio-visual medium are extremely powerful indeed, but, a book has its own set of loyalists and nothing can quite beat the experience of curling up with a good book.

6. Describe a typical day in the life of William Dalrymple at home in Mehrauli, in the middle of writing a book.

This is perhaps the only farm here that is an actual farm…we have goats for fresh milk, chickens for eggs, my pigeons for company… A day here, which is rather rare with all my travelling, starts very early around 6am when I do a clean edit of the previous day’s writing, of which I usually take printouts the previous night. Completing these, I go up and key them into my laptop, where I do most of my writing, and then it’s usually time for a run, bath and breakfast. I write some more till about lunch and then my day’s work of fresh writing is nearly done. After lunch I may take a nap or just chill for a bit and re-assess my day’s work. I like to go out occasionally in the evenings for a party or a social get-together and then it’s back to work the next day.

‘The Writer’s Eye’ a solo show of photographs by William Dalrymple was on at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53 Defence Colony, New Delhi from 30th March to 20th April 2016. The show was curated by noted author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi