Derry Moore, the 12th Earl of Drogheda, made his name photographing the interiors and portraits of European aristocracy, including those of Queen Elizabeth II and the late Queen Mother. He has published over a dozen books, and his photographs can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Royal Collection, the Bibliotheque Nationale, as well as numerous other private collections.
Moore began photographing in India during a series of visits in early 1976. In his statement on the project titled A photographer in India, Moore states, “My initial idea had been to photograph some of the places whose days, I knew, were numbered. In the event what fascinated me was not simply the places themselves but also the hybrid quality of many of the lesser buildings that had been constructed since the first arrival of the British in India. A cultural osmosis was clearly discernible, that of British and European architecture on Indian buildings, and that of India and its climate, as well styles, on the British. In the latter instance, a grandeur and a sense of space, such as are rarely seen in Britain, were frequently the outcome: rooms were higher, windows larger, corridors wider, detail more lavish; the porticoes of relatively humble houses might have been snatched from the front of the British Museum. The appearance of their inhabitants too surprised me. I had been expecting folkloric looks, where as what I found was far more interesting – the look and atmosphere of another century”
The impact of colonialism – and the British Empire – on the fabric of Indian society, customs and life is a complex subject. And one that to our detriment, is often conceived of as a one-way current, from the British to the Indians. However, as Moore points out, cultural transactions are inherently two-way, even if unequal. This negotiation between two opposing forces, and its frictions and confluences, is what particularly makes this hybridity appealing. Understanding this, reframes the way in which both the British and their Indian subjects are positioned in a postcolonial context.
Moore’s photographs capture another era, in more ways than one. Many of these photographs, taken as they were in the mid-seventies, capture a moment of post-Independent India caught in the throes of transformation – politically, with the official revocation of the privy purse and royal privileges, as also slowly, technologically. In 1976, Moore writes, “Life was more unpredictable and more surprising, and that feeling of adventure which is such a vital feature of Kipling’s writings could still be sensed. Television was barely known, its homogenizing effects yet to come. Mass tourism with its camp-follower banality, was also a virtual stranger. Anything imported was prohibitively expensive, and ‘handmade’ was the rule rather than the exception. The motor car – and by 1917 there were effectively only two models, both quite humble, to choose from – was a luxury rather than a necessity.”
Moore’s statement traces his journeys across the various places he photographed in India, and like Christopher Taylor, he too is fascinated by the architecture of Calcutta and Bombay, which seem to fit so well into this anachronistic atmosphere, bespeaking of a moment in time fossilised and preserved in the shells of these buildings.
In the case of Bombay, it is the hybridity of these houses that intrigue him. “Built in the last century and in the early years of this, they were European in style,” he writes, “but European with a difference, their walls a riot of decorative detail that eschewed any bare surface.” Whereas in the Calcutta he records, it is the once wealthy haveli-like houses now crumbling in disrepair and decaying that catch his attention. With owners now either lacking the financial ability or the desire to maintain them, they function relics of a better time – but are ironically viewed as he points out, as “relics of the bad old days” and therefore persecuted by begrudging government officials too.
Moore talks of his visit to Murshidabad, where he “found an assortment of palaces all in varying states of neglect and with little sign of habitation apart from the occasional watchman”, and a particular building that “did not appear to have a name…situated on the edge of a tank, or lake, and surrounded by palm trees…like a Renaissance palazzo uprooted and replanted in Bengal.”
It is these narratives of fading grandeur and arrested time in these incongruous architectural emblems that unfold in Moore’s Evening Ragas, poetically exemplified by the black, white and grey tones of his photographs. Lingering traces of a past, swept away by the rising tides of time, commerce and politics, they resound with the echoes of older footfalls and memories of other lives in another time – no longer accessible, and yet frequently reimagined. This is especially pronounced in the portrait photographs, loaded with the historical weight of lineage and the political weight of privilege, that depict a ‘here and now’ that is, in fact, in constant negotiation with the past.