Was it that long ago?
Lodged in our childhood memories of growing up in a newly independent India during the mid-20th century are vestiges of the British Raj off the beaten track that were already beginning to disappear then. Few such places remain today. One must look long and hard for them.
There are railway tracks that still disappear into thickets of the forest. There are bungalows, falling apart, that still beckon hunters who have long rested their barrels. And there are old houses that have been consigned to the mercy of time. In this book of photographs, Debal Sen’s camera has been able to capture the texture of this passing.
These images are akin to a visual Braille that helps us reconnect with the past that has inevitably slipped from our sight. Reminiscent of Eugène Atget’s exposures that brought to life Parisian streets and interiors of the late nineteenth century, Sen’s lights and shades touch upon the fragments of a vanishing era, whose traces will surely be extinguished in our own lifetime. Sen’s indulgent lens lingers in these spaces, both inside and outside, sifting fastidiously through bends, corners, trails, stairwells, and furniture for the right combination of pixels.
Once Upon a Time is an unabashedly intimate and idiosyncratic travelogue, where compositions jostle for space amid lyrics from the Grateful Dead, adamant lines from Dylan Thomas and the sombre meditations of T. S. Eliot. It is also a tribute to the creative urge that all nostalgia brings. This urgency is not to be underestimated. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, a time-tested weapon that enables us to withstand the ravages of ageing. Its object of loss is the past, but its visceral preoccupations are with the mounting banality of the present.
Above all, this is a book of silence. It is only in unusually quiet places where the here-now of the lens can finally meet the there-then of the reminiscing eye.
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