The Arts

In Photos: The Rise and Fall of India's Cities

A photographic study of urban memory.

Magnificent ruins are what remain of Hampi’s rise and prominence from the 14th to the 17th centuries. In its prime, Hampi was three times the size of contemporary Paris, and second only to the imperial city of Beijing during the reign of the Ming dynasty at that time.

Today, Hampi lies silent and deserted in the wake of its own departed magnificence.

At the same time, new cities are rising out of the rural soil. One of these, eponymously called Newtown, is waking into being in another part of India.

These photographs provide the visual binary of a great Indian city of the sleeping past and a future city waking into shape. No city is an isolated island in the stream of history. There is a human connection between the splendour of Hampi in its medieval glory, and the new polis rising out of the fertile ploughed stretches and playfields of rural children in nascent Newtown today.

In the one, we see the past perfections frozen in stone. Within the other, we witness the emergence of the forces of change – with a phalanx of distant buildings gaining upon the virgin soil. Yet this too, in time, will inevitably become the habitat of the past, and this new city, too, will become a part of the abiding and elegiac music of history. And the two sets of images play their parts – as in a diptych – of being and mutability.

The use of panoramic images is predicated by this amplitude of vision. These photographs hint at the scenes of ordinary life in a busy city of the past: The iconic toll gate of Hampi indicates the ancient city’s sense of order and control, its dimensions dictating the size of vehicles allowed within. The stretches of its peripheral wall bespeaks its mastery and understanding of what is excluded, and what is essential: public places of assembly, demarcation of houses, private and public stores of water which fill these reservoirs so many years later.

To borrow and adapt from the Book of Ecclesiastes, it is possible to say: there is a time to build, and a time to depart; a time to fortify, and a time to yield to Time itself.

Such is the territory – of history and memory – in which these photographs live.

Rajib De’s exhibition ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Hampi and Newtown’ is showing at the India International Centre, New Delhi from August 10 to August 20.

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