Quiet burials, an eerily empty Raisina Road, a shutters down Khan Market and a migrant worker staring wordlessly out of the page snapshots of a Delhi frozen into stillness during the lockdown are documented for posterity in a new coffee table book. When India went indoors in March to curtail the spread of COVID-19, photographer Parul Sharma stepped outside to capture frame by frame the unprecedented weeks and months of silence in the national capital.
The result is the lavishly laid out “Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown” published recently by Roli. Sharma remembers the day she ventured out with her camera. It was April 3, barely 10 days after India went into lockdown on March 25. She knew what was unfolding before her was a story of a lifetime and so hit the streets with her camera in hand.
“When the lockdown was declared on March 23, no one in the city knew what was happening outside of their doors. There was an eerie silence and the air resonated with fear. Rumours were rife and horror stories were being exchanged on social media platforms. I thought it would be a good idea to get out, drive my car and see the reality,” the Delhi-based fine arts photographer told PTI. Her efforts yielded about 10,000 never-before-seen black and white images of a deserted Delhi. Of these, about 120 were chosen for her debut book.
What we have is the frozen reality of life in Delhi, showing images of empty vistas of Raisina Hills, an unnervingly silent Khan Market, the solitary columns of Connaught Place and the monuments of Old Delhi sans people or activity. Divided into five sections, the book also features photographs of the destitute and the desperate, the migrants, labourers and sex-workers abandoned by a city they had made their home and thousands forced to trudge back to their villages hundreds of kilometres away.
“Every morning the first thought was to get out, chart new parts that I had not photographed, and to capture those images that would tell a story painful or otherwise for the years to come about where we lived, and what we lived through,” said Sharma, who specialises in urban architectural forms,India’s cultural heritage and human portraits. As one month slipped into another, the story went from bad to worse.
The spiralling COVID-19 count also took its toll on the “exhaustive and inadequate health system”. Through Sharma’s lens, the reader sees the bruised faces of doctors and nurses after hours of layering up in masks, PPE suits, gloves, hooded caps, face shields, goggles, gowns, shoe covers and towels. Sharma, who visited the AIIMS COVID-19 wards, captured up close and personal moments of patients and frontline warriors facing arguably the biggest battle of their lives.
“Every crisis is made bearable by the kindness and heroism of some. I found kind heroes in abundance in the Covid wards of AIIMS. No PPE could conceal the urgency and determination of the doctors and nurses,” Sharma writes in the book. The inspiring images of dedicated AIIMS staff are followed by heart-wrenching photographs of plastic-wrapped bodies and quiet funerals at the Nigambodh electric crematorium, the Muslim burial ground behind Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg and the Christian cemetery in Mangolpuri.
“The fear of getting infected and dying by COVID overtook the centuries old requirements of prayer and ritual at these sites of final rites to honour the dead. These stark images will always haunt me,” said Sharma. With so much happening around, wasn’t she scared of contracting the virus? “A photographer does his or her job in a war zone. You cannot be looking here and there to duck bullets or in this case, a virus. You photograph, as close to the action as possible before that image escapes you forever,” she said.
The last few images in the book, a barber decked in a PPE attending to the coiffure of a solitary client in a salon, a barista wearing a face shield pouring coffee into a cup place on an empty food counter, chronicles the easing of lockdown restrictions since June. Sharma is working on other book projects, including a book on Mumbai’s Colaba district. She still takes photographs every day and said the four months were a “once in a lifetime experience” that can’t be replicated.
Proceeds from the sales of “Dialects of Silence: Delhi Under Lockdown”, priced at Rs 2,995, will support Cosmo Foundation Community’s outreach initiative to facilitate educational programmes in several rural districts and schools in Maharashtra, Gujarat and also in the Delhi-NCR region.