Three years ago William Dalrymple began travelling across India to chart the ruin of the Mughal empire and the rise of the East India Company. Following in the steps of Mughal emperor Shah Alam, the central character of his book The Anarchy, Dalrymple visited battlefields, mosques, ruins, palaces and barracks across Srinagar, Srirangapatna, Jaipur, Lucknow, Lahore, Kolkata and elsewhere. He also explored the art and culture of the period. The journeys resulted in “The Historian’s Eye”, an exhibition of black-and-white photos shot on a cell phone that opened in Mumbai in April and will travel to other cities including Delhi and Chennai in the coming months.
Scottish-born and Delhi-based Dalrymple has written on travel (In Xanadu, From the Holy Mountain) and history (White Mughals, The Last Mughal) but his early passion was photography.
Condensed and edited excerpts from an interview about his teenage hobby, travelling in India and why visiting sites is the key to his kind of history writing:
Can you tell me a little about how you got into photography?
It’s in my blood. My great-great-aunt was a woman called Julia Margaret Cameron, who was a famous Victorian photographer. We had her albums at home and I remember as a child leafing through and seeing the power of photography. My grandmother left me some money and when I was 16, I bought a camera. As a teenager this is what I did. I used to disappear into the school’s dark room on weekends and come out clutching sheets of my prints. I loved that. People who knew me at that stage remember me as someone who was mad keen on photography. Then I got into writing, and the camera sat in its bag unused. I rediscovered it when two things happened. First, I got a really good smartphone and found you could take remarkably good photographs. Then a friend pointed me to some good software, which allowed me to turn all the photos into the same style of photographs that I was working on in the dark, in black-and-white, at 17.
Do you only shoot with a phone camera now?
I do have a regular camera but haven’t used it for two or three years. [With phone cameras] you can’t get the high shutter speed and I particularly miss the ability to zoom in seriously. But weighing against that, you have something with you the whole time. It’s immediate. No one knows if you are taking photographs or pretending to check your email. In the same way that Henri Cartier-Bresson never used the big large format Hasselblads and 3X3 cameras on tripods that serious photographers used in the 1920s and 30s. He used a tiny Leica that was no bigger than a phone camera with a tiny lens. He and that generation of photographers used to love the freedom that this light mobile guerrilla photography gave them. I am still very much in that tradition.
As a historian why do you think it’s important to visit the places one is writing about?
It’s central. It varies with the sort of history you are [exploring]. It’s less important if you are commenting on post-colonial theory or something. But it matters, if your work is rooted in geography and narrative, as mine is, and places and stories, in the sense I try to write my history. So despite four or five years of research and primary sources, I still want my work to read like literature with characters and narrative, and a beginning and end; using the techniques of the novel but using it for what is strictly non-fiction. For that sort of history, to know the landscape and to know the places you are writing about seems to be absolutely essential, as essential as going back to primary sources. It seems to me if you spend your whole time in the library but don’t know the landscape, you are as much at sea as if you know the place but don’t know the primary sources.
Is this something historians normally do?
There are surprisingly few historians in India writing the sort of history I write. History is still very much the craft of the university and the academic. In this country they normally come from a Marxist background and therefore often concentrate on social and economic history, of which India has a strong and brilliant tradition with great masters such as Irfan Habib. But that’s not the kind of history I write.
Non-fiction as a whole in India is in a sense a fairly new venture. Most of the great Indian writers are fiction writers and novelists. And still history is the preserve of academics who tend to write economic history with a Marxist edge, out of academe, for other academics; which is a wonderful tradition but not the one I belong to or not what I do. So if you’re writing [certain kinds of history] it’s perhaps possible to do it only from the archives and to not know the land. If you’re writing narrative history then of course you have to go to places. There will be a deep inauthenticity about your writing if you don’t go and see it.
There are parts of Kashmir, Pakistan, that this show captures. Is it harder to move around those places now?
Obviously Kashmir is more tense. I have travelled a lot there but never run into any trouble. As a firangi you’re not really anyone’s enemy. And Pakistan is obviously tenser than it was when I first went travelling there in the mid-eighties. It’s heavily armed and more scarred by terrorism and jihadi activity. Now when you travel along [some parts] there are check points every 10 miles. You have to produce papers and photocopies of your passport and whathaveyou at each stop. But it’s not difficult. They are all accessible.
Do you ever travel for its own sake or is it always related to work?
Often. I just got back from a trip to Chettinad, which was an entirely self-indulgent holiday, where we ate magnificently. I often try and combine it with work if possible. Whenever I’m in a litfest I try and take a day off afterwards to see something. Even during the Chettinad trip, the first couple of days I was looking at East India Company material in Chennai and Tranquebar before setting off on a holiday.
Do you feel still like an outsider when you travel in India?
I think after 30 years I’m both an insider and an outsider, which is quite a useful thing to be. It could be awkward in some ways socially if you are still an outsider after 30 years but certainly as a writer, an outsider sees things that someone in the places doesn’t see. To be an outsider in a country opens your eyes. There is still an element of surprise every day. But after 30-35 years I can interpret most things I see. Though now still every day there are surprises. This is a remarkable, surprising country. There is still so much I haven’t seen and so much I don’t understand, which is ideal for a writer.
Have you changed much as a traveller since your first books?
There’s no question that India completely changed me. I’m a very different person than who I would have been had I gone off to London and worked at a newspaper there. As a traveller now I’m in my fifties and the kind of rough hitchhiking and backpacking that I did as a teenager is less appealing. I can still rough it when necessary but I think middle age changes what you look for in travel. That initial adventure of heading off for the first time on your own with a backpack isn’t something you can carry on doing in your middle age.
Are there places that you keep returning to?
Many. Most places in this exhibition are favourites I go back to: Lucknow, Calcutta, Srirangapatna, Hyderabad and of course, Delhi. But also Lahore and Kashmir. India is so rich, even in a place you know well there are surprises. That’s why India is so wonderful. It’s so dense in its culture. Even if you have travelled energetically and madly for many years there’s always new stuff.