On face value, there is much that is discomfiting about an Englishman travelling to India with the primary intention of investigating his own transplanted culture, a nostalgic fantasy that leads nowhere on the subject of the imperial past and Indian present. One is immediately compelled to make the comparison between this new book, lavishly produced, and impeccably presented by Tasveer, with the Stones of Empire by Jan Morris and Simon Winchester, widely held to be the definitive popular book on the architectural legacy of the British Empire in India. Morris and Winchester also present us with an India where cows wander around ruined residencies and Indian faces share frames with classical busts. This comparison, however, would be a mistake, since that book, a work of history committed to the interrogation of the role of British architecture in achieving the imperial project, is radically different from Derry Moore’s artistic achievement. For In the Shadow of the Raj is a book about the present. Not about the emerging global India (charmingly sighed-upon in the introduction by Mark Tully, the doyen of Indian cultural encounters) but about the presence of the past in the present. The photos say much about the pathos of life and aging by capturing these ancient buildings, cut adrift from their original purpose, meandering like ghost ships into an alien age. Decaying and chiefly inhabited by equally-ancient watchmen and vintage cars, these structures capture our imagination by the power of the contrast between the values and aesthetics they embody and epitomise and the modern world beyond, busily changing itself beyond any hope of recognition.
In some ways the title belittles the work. While colonial architecture forms the central concern of the book, there is also much more. Moore pays much attention to pre-colonial architecture, to the landscape, eminent personalities and especially the former princely houses, capturing their survival into the seventies and their ritual and material wealth with a lens free of judgement or agenda. He allows the subjects to present themselves and thus brilliantly captures the immaculate poise of a life that was secretly dying. The ironic tension that is evoked between the apparent confidence of Moore’s subjects and the march of history makes one examine the faces intently, to look for traces of them knowing that their days in these places were numbered. It invites us to question the apparent invincibility of our own times, as we encounter an imperial architecture (and its princely collaborators) defined by absolute ideological confidence lapsing into it’s final decrepitude.
While Morris and Winchester examine the sumptuousness of British architecture, Moore largely eschews the set-piece structures of imperial power: There is little of Lutyens, no Government Houses, or Clubs, and only one image of Fort St. George, largely included by virtue of its current emptiness, all real power drained away. Rather than relying on splendour, Moore captures intimacy – of the inhabitants, the telling details, the moments of decay, the ironic difference between statement and reality now that the animating force that produced and maintained these buildings has ebbed away. His portraits are often formally-composed, full frontal, but the subtle charisma of his subjects and the world they inhabit still offer tremendous depth; one feels like one is examining a scientific slide of a species long extinct, or critically endangered. By what rules and pleasures did these immemorial figures arise every morning, arrange and inhabit the rooms that monsoon rains were wrecking, while Indira Gandhi schemed to remove the power and privilege that made this life possible?
This diverse collection of photographs can perhaps be best defined by what it excludes: the repellent ugliness of India’s emerging culture of global consumerism. In this sense, as well as in the deliberate style and formal composition, Derry Moore’s work is a species as endangered and compelling as his subjects, and therefore, in every sense, equally as precious.
– Abhimanyu Arni
In the Shadow of the Raj is available for purchase on the Tasveer Bookstore. → Buy the book now.
Derry Moore (b. 1937) is famed for his architectural interiors and portraits. Following his education at Eton and Cambridge, Moore studied painting at Oskar Kokoschka’s School of Seeing in Salzburg, Austria, and later took up photography lessons under the guidance of Bill Brandt. Moore’s illustrious subjects have included Diana, Princess of Wales, Indira Gandhi, David Bowie, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ronald Reagan, Satyajit Ray, Anita Desai and Tracey Emin, among many others.
Moore’s work has been widely published by prominent magazines, and his notable publications include Horses: Portraits by Derry Moore (Rizzoli, 2016), Derry Moore: An English Room (Prestel, 2014), Evening Ragas (John Murray, 1997) and The Englishman’s Room (Viking, 1986). His photographs can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Royal Collection, the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, as well as numerous private collections.