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Through a lens, softly
Derry Moore's photographs of Indian palaces and mansions are a comment not so much on their opulence but their endangered loveliness.
A calm and restful quality infuses each frame captured by Derry Moore's camera. If India is often portrayed by photographers - especially those from other countries - as an insanely busy place of colour and chaos, Moore's lens captures its grave and poignant character.
In his ongoing exhibition of photographs, which has been travelling to various Indian cities and is currently showing at the Tasveer Gallery in Bangalore, Moore showcases photographs he took when he travelled across the country in the late '70s and '80s.
Titled Evening Raagas, they show Moore's predilection for clean lines and graceful, spare beauty in both people and places. For instance, his portraits of Indian palaces and mansions comment not so much on their opulence and grandeur as their fragile, endangered loveliness. Most of his frames are spare and monochrome, and hint at a way of life that was dying even at that time. Moore says his initial idea had been to photograph some of the places whose days, he knew, "were numbered". He was also fascinated by the "hybrid quality" of many of the buildings. "A cultural osmosis was clearly discernible, that of British and European architecture on Indian buildings, and that of India and its climate, as well as its styles, on the British, " writes Moore in the exhibition notes.
One of the world's most celebrated contemporary photographers, 75-yearold Moore - or to give him his full name, Henry Dermot Ponsonby Moore, 12th Earl of Drogheda - has an impressive portfolio of work in portraiture and photographing interiors. His portraits of David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, V S Naipaul and Ronald Reagan are among the most celebrated and well-known pictures of these people anywhere in the world. Among the Indian luminaries he has captured on film are Satyajit Ray, J Krishnamurti, M S Subulakshmi and Ravi Shankar.
Yet, while the National Portrait Gallery in London has 37 of his portraits in its collection, Moore's best work is generally considered to have been done on homes and interiors, which have been published in magazines like Architectural Digest and Nest. In India, too, Moore sought out homes - often palaces and mansions that interested him architecturally - and shot them in his trademark understated and quirky style. Among the once-stately homes that drew him were the Faluknuma Palace and Chaumuhalla Palace in Hyderabad, Burdwan House in Calcutta and Udaipur's City Palace.
"There is a certain poignancy in places whose days were numbered. This also extends to people - and by extension, to communities, " says Moore. "To take most of these photographs today would be impossible, so much of India has changed beyond recognition in the last 22 years. " Interestingly, Moore is not just talking of India's urban landscape being taken over by what he calls "international mediocrity", but also the increasing homogenisation of its people. "I continue to travel in India, although less so than in the past, " he says. "For me, the element that I dislike most is that India is fast becoming homogenised and is losing its varied and distinctive personality. This is reflected not simply in the clothes people wear, but in the actual faces of people. When I first came to India in 1976, there was an incredible grace in nearly everyone, which at the time, made it distinct from the rest of the world. That quality still exists but to a far lesser degree. "
The one element he looks for in a subject is surprise, and Moore feels that's increasingly difficult to find. "Today, I must actively seek out 'subjects' to a far greater extent. That said, when found, the occasions are just as exciting;it's rather like fishing in an increasingly emptied sea. "
Moore's views on digital photography are, understandably, not very charitable. "In some ways, digital photography simplifies the process of photography, " he says. "However, I believe it tends to make it more superficial - in the way that great 19th century photographs, which relied on an extremely slow and cumbersome process, 'last'. One can look at them again and again without their becoming dull. "
He also feels it is certainly easier today to be a mediocre photographer than a mediocre painter or writer. "The latter forms require a certain amount of study (and) training, whereas with photography, particularly with modern cameras the old Kodak advertisement, 'you press the button, we do the rest', applies. It became easier with the advent of colour photography and has become easier still since digital photography has become the norm. (But) have you ever noticed how much more evocative people's old family black-and-white photographs are than the later colour ones?"
The show is on till November 30 at Tasveer Gallery, Bangalore. It will travel to Delhi and Mumbai next year
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