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The sighs and solitude of a despairing city: Photographer Parul Sharma captures Delhi under lockdown

Her Book ‘Dialects Of Silence’ Is ‘art’s Alternative To Memory’.

The Nigambodh Ghat Electric Crematorium in Delhi | Parul Sharma's Dialects of Silence: Delhi under Lockdown published by Roli Books

A few weeks into the lockdown in March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Parul Sharma got tired of the workouts and cooking. As images of empty streets streamed home on the television and through the internet, the photographer had had enough of the “second-hand reality” she was seeing. Early in April, Sharma hit the streets of Delhi with her camera to see it all for herself.

The project has yielded more than 10,000 images so far. From shooting a desolate Lutyens’ Delhi to the haunted vistas of Old Delhi, Sharma moved on to documenting migrants leaving the city, Covid-19 patients being treated at the All India Institute of Medical Science, and grim scenes at the crematoriums and graveyards.

Outside Qutub Minar. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

A selection of these photographs have been published by Roli Books, titled Dialects of Silence: Delhi under Lockdown.

“The idea certainly wasn’t to do photojournalism, but a photographer cannot draw boundaries for themselves,” Sharma told Scroll.in. “Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph shot during the Great Depression blurs the line between news and art, as it transcends boundaries and is just as relatable for an Indian viewer as it is for an American.”

At the All India Institute of Medical Science in Delhi. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

In the introduction, Sharma quotes war photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Sharma goes on to say, “What you see in the following pages are my closest encounters with the sighs, solitude, sorrows and consolations of a despairing city. I can only hope that the photographs will remain as art’s alternative to memory.”

The head of Delhi's Covid Care Unit at the All India Institute of Medical Science, Dr Rajesh Malhotra, worked an exhausting 18-hour shift, seven days of the week, staying within the hospital complex, and caught up with his favourite Talat Mahmood songs before snatching a few hours of sleep. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

Despite her best intentions, Sharma could not photograph several parts of Delhi. “I couldn’t shoot the migrants leaving from Anand Vihar as my family did not let me venture into such crowded places,” she said. “I couldn’t shoot much of Old Delhi which were declared red zones. I couldn’t shoot the ICU at AIIMS. The doctors said it’s good enough we are letting you shoot us.”

And far from the All India Institute of Medical Science, Sharma had an entirely different experience at the Nigambodh Ghat electric crematorium, whose memories kept her up on many nights. She was fascinated by the crematorium’s “clinical brutalist architecture, particularly the three furnaces”. But, she said, “its smell was so putrid, it felt like I had returned home with it on my body and hair”.

Rhesus monkeys at Delhi's North Avenue. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

Having shot photographs for magazines before, it wasn’t hard for Sharma to obtain a pass to make her way through the city. “When I spotted the monkeys, I parked my car and quietly walked up to them, but they did not come to me or jump at me at all,” Sharma said. “They were so quiet, it seemed like they were having a conference. People had left them bananas. With no one around, they had taken over both sides of the road.”

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Old Delhi. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

Sharma, who was born in Delhi and still lives there, has been fascinated with the city’s architecture for as long as she can remember. “You can find a good image in Old Delhi at any time of the day,” Sharma said. “It’s a rich tapestry where so many worlds collide into each other. New Delhi has its charms, particularly, the Lutyens’ area, where the architecture tends to be Soviets-influenced and very Bauhaus style.”

Jama Masjid. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

A dreamlike and nocturnal Jama Masjid stands out in a book packed with photographs heavy on information and clarity. “This happened when I was clicking Jama Masjid around 8 pm in the evening on slow shutter,” Sharma said.

Children of a migrant family in Delhi. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

Sharma started documenting migrants after becoming aware of the news of that tens of thousands were leaving the city because they had no work or money to buy food. While she went about photographing them, she uploaded some of the photos on her Instagram account. Her followers were moved and reached out to help some of the people Sharma had photographed.

A child of a migrant worker in Delhi. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

Sharma recalled that the migrants she shot “had hope in their eyes, that maybe someone would see these photographs and rescue them”. What stood out from many of the situations she photographed was the “camaraderie” among the children “who were innocent of what was happening around them”, both on the streets and in the hospital.

At the All India Institute of Medical Science in Delhi. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

Sharma said she was petrified when she first visited the All India Institute of Medical Science. “When I walked into AIIMS, one of the biggest hospitals of the capital, the entire reception area was empty,” Sharma. “There was just one single lady in a hazmat suit at the desk.”

The lack of clear information about the novel coronavirus in April and May kept Sharma on her toes during her time in the hospital. “When I was led to the office of [Covid Care Unit chief] Dr Rajesh Malhotra, they told me I could sit, and I said no I will stand,” Sharma said. “They offered me water, and I said no.”

But Sharma’s fears disappeared as she went about taking photographs. “When the doctors were gearing up in the donning area, wearing the hazmat suits, and taping up every inch of their skin, it felt like they were going to war,” Sharma said. “They were, like, in a meditative state.”

An Afghan boxer at the Lodhi Gardens. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.

The project turned out to be a learning experience for Sharma. “Usually, I did not like staying home a lot, despite having built it with a lot of affection,” Sharma said. “I was always out in search of the next best frame. But this time, I really began to appreciate my home, and the little things that we take for granted, like family and friends. What I realised in my days of taking these photos was how fragile life is, and all that matters ultimately is a roof over our heads, food on our table, and some people we can call ours. The rest is a blessing in disguise.”

Dialects of Silence: Delhi under Lockdown. Courtesy Parul Sharma/Roli Books.