In 2017, Parul Sharma, a photographer based in New Delhi left her high profile position in media communications to pursue her creative passion. For her book, ‘Dialects of Silence’ she documented over 10,000 frames of Delhi’s lockdown trauma.
Aviva Baig and Shaardhool Shreenath
How did this book come to life?
I had no plans of publishing a book at all! I’m a photographer in Delhi. Sitting idle at home witnessing what’s probably the news of the century, isn’t an option. I wanted to witness it first-hand. So, the book started as a personal narrative, trying to capture the beauty of the city under lockdown. However, it ended up becoming a significant public document because of what I eventually managed to capture. I started off by capturing architecture around the city but then witnessed the displacement of the migrants and had to document it. I even captured scenes of AIIMS and hospital workers rushing around the city.
"Jama Masjid reopens for evening prayers with social distancing"
Could you tell us about any two photographs in the book?
Aerial View of Connaught Place
There are a few frames you sometimes can imagine before you shoot it and a few others which you capture on the go. This one, in particular, is the former. I was shooting in and around Lutyens, Delhi and, decided to head to the Statesmen House in Connaught Place. I was stopped by a guard who thought I was heading up to take my own life. Even after negotiating, they were reluctant about letting me in. However, I kept returning just to take that one picture. I tried to get in touch with people who work there, seeking special permission and I finally got in! A 35-storey building which is usually buzzing on any given day was completely deserted. It was an uncommon and unsettling scene to witness but I finally got the shot that I had in mind. This shot, in particular, is very similar to the pictures of Delhi during pre-independent India. The aerial views back then and now, in this photograph, are very similar.
The Little Boy
When I first saw this boy, I immediately liked his demeanour and body language. Kind of a gangster look in his eyes, a small plastic gun in his hand. His reality is that he is a migrant worker’s child. They were all stranded under a bridge in West Delhi. So, the innocence and helplessness could be seen clearly in his eyes. My lens captured the whole family while the boy played with his friends, unaware of how problematic the wretched virus is. That’s the beauty of childhood - ignorant yet innocent and this boy, I remember, had a very interesting personality.
When you first set out to do this, did you feel compelled to cover it as a photojournalist or did you take a more artistic approach?
Nigambondh Ghat Electric Crematorium
I did it as a war photographer! I have always been fascinated by war photographers and photographers who capture images in places of conflict. I started photography only a few years ago in 2017, but I’ve read a lot about wars and conflicts in the past. I’ve always appreciated the spirit of adventure these photographers have. Henri Cartier-Bresson had actually said this, “It’s not the photographs he captured that mattered, it’s the spirit of adventure which took me to places.” I’ve always wanted to be a war photographer and when the pandemic broke out, it was like a war. When I left my house, I was entering a battlefield, and in a battlefield, you either live or die and that’s exactly what I felt when I went out. And I think that’s what took me out there.
You have captured history and in times to come this may be a seminal book. What are your thoughts on art as a way to document history?
"A migrant mother with her child wonders if she will get back to her village in Uttar Pradesh."
This book is a chronicle of lives paused, lives lost, and lives regained, told by someone who loves Delhi. For me, photography is storytelling. What was unfolding before me was a story of a lifetime, the story of the century. I can only hope that the photographs will remain as art’s alternative to memory.
How did you cope with the physical and mental strain of going out and witnessing these events regularly?
"I still wake up on most dawns in a sweat shattered with the horror and sadness and sheer aloneness of bodies that came, day in, day out, to the Nigambodh Electric Crematorium, the Muslim burial ground and the Christian cemetery."
Yes, I did feel a lot of strain both physically and mentally. First comes the safety aspect, which gets very hard because keeping track of everything you touch, every place you visit is impossible. You could contract the disease at any point. At a time like this, going out alone on deserted streets, going into unknown building with nobody there, it was scary for sure. You also have these videos going around scaring you even more, I mean, I was scared to touch the lift buttons worried about my health. It was challenging, but I think it’s my passion which took me to these places. If you keep thinking about the challenges only, you will never get anywhere. Friends and family did help in keeping my spirit up, but then it comes down to individual eventually. It’s up to you at the end of the day. Apart from that, I did work out everyday to keep fit and healthy and calm my mind.
Now that the book is out, do you feel you missed out on anything?
"The head of Delhi's COVID care unit at AIIMS, Dr. Rakesh 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 song before snatching a few hours of sleep."
I tried my best to capture everything I wanted to, and I mostly succeeded. Maybe I missed out on capturing the ICU wards at the hospital, but it was big deal that they let me photograph inside the normal wards, so that was fine. Although, I did want to capture the ICU wards but unfortunately couldn’t.
Where can people purchase this book?
You can get the book at Bahrisons in Khan Market or in most other bookstores around India. Or if you prefer, you can order it off Amazon as well!
All Photographs and captions © Parul Sharma
Edited By Tanishaa Jain & Manu Kaushal