Saumya Khandelwal <em>Delhi</em> 2023, from the Megacities project, Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. This project is supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, and Barry Janes and Paul Cross, 2022. Courtesy of the artist<br/>
© Saumya Khandelwal

In a state of constant movement

Saumya Khandelwal

One of a series of essays featuring the answers to questions posed to artists participating in the Megacities project of NGV Triennial 2023

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, the megacity – a city with a population of more than 10 million people – may become the dominant human habitat. The NGV Triennial project Megacities is an ambitious, immersive multimedia installation bringing the creative vision of ten leading street photographers into dialogue with the urban environment. These images offer a counterpoint to the myth of the megacity, an urban agglomeration often used as the antithesis of wealthy European and North American metropolis. Here, the megacity is shown through the lens and explained in the words of those that live there.

Can you describe your daily experience living and working in one of the largest cities on the planet?

Delhi is intense. I don’t know why exactly, but it makes its presence felt, particularly to an outsider. I was an outsider about a decade ago, and now, having lived here for so long, I ask myself: Have I completely transformed into a Delhiite? Transformed enough to be called a Delhiite now, is my answer!

I shifted to Delhi in my twenties to pursue higher education. The sheer scale of infrastructure, buildings, traffic and people has always amazed me. I have come to accept it over the years and sometimes even appreciate it. But the thing with a city like Delhi is that if you have the means, you can more or less decide what your daily experience in the city can be like. When I was sharing my living space and was dependent on public transport, I found the realities of Delhi very harsh in my daily life. The city has an aggression about it. People get angry really quickly and there is a constant power game at play when dealing with people. Because of the power play I became more aware of my identity as a woman as well. Gender is an easy target in the game of power. Now that I have my own place and vehicle, and my dependence on others has relatively decreased, the daily task of getting somewhere is not as much of a struggle. I try to divide my commute between the Delhi Metro, driving by myself or pre-booking cabs, which have a certain level of predictability to them. The game of negotiating isn’t involved and thus there is the reduced burden of defending your space.

While a lot of outsiders have made Delhi their home, [the population] still lives in pockets. There will be pockets for different communities and demographics, which often leads to stereotyping. Delhi is one of the very few cities in India that has a very rich art and culture scene, which makes living here more interesting. It also has a sizeable crowd of intellectuals. Therefore, to access information, insights and awareness in general is an easier task in a city like this.

There are many Delhis. There is the Delhi of the rich, who can choose to step out of their bungalows or builder-floor flats, step into their air-conditioned cars despite the sweltering heat outside and reach their destination, an air-conditioned shopping mall or restaurant, quite blind to the realities outside this life. But then there is the Delhi of the poor and the middle class, where everyday life is a struggle, from waiting for buses and auto rickshaws to walking to work, juggling potholes and rush-hour traffic, brushing shoulder to shoulder with their counterparts in the reality of life.

How has this contemporary urban environment shaped your practice as a photographer and artist?

You get used to the stark disparity that exists within Delhi’s spaces, and that disparity inevitably percolates in my works as well. Delhi is in a state of constant movement. It is a little extra of everything – people, noise, anger, hospitality, traffic – and lends itself to a sense of drama. It’s dynamic and temperamental.

Our understanding of cities has benefited from the development of GPS and mobile technology – does this impact your work? Has it changed the way that you work ‘on the street’, with the ubiquitous presence of mobile technologies?

I would be lying if I didn’t confess that I am not very appreciative of phones percolating through my frames. There are enough influencers and wannabe influencers who are ever so keen to photograph or film something interesting – so much so that a place I once used to frequent early mornings for its quiet has now become a content creators’ fair, with couples posing for their pre-wedding photographs and travel influencers posing for selfies and dancing for a cameraperson. So as a photographer, I sometimes have to struggle to find my space. But if I talk about this visually, the mobile towers are the modern-day minarets. The Mughal architectural minarets often have to compete with them in the evolving landscape of this megacity.

As a tool, mobile technology has percolated through my life as much as it has anybody else’s in this world. That is how I navigate: I find places on Google Maps and pin locations when I notice an interesting place I want to come back to. For me, it has always been a part of my practice, since it has been around ever since I started professional photography.

Environmental and social problems are often cited as negative outcomes of urbanisation on the megacity scale, but counterpoints include the development of innovative ways of living and employment opportunities. Negative or positive? Can you discuss your experiences and responses to the high-density urban environment?

Urban environments can be great equalisers. The Delhi Metro, for example, brings together people from different sections of society in the same [train] compartment. In the very homogenised environments that different parts of Delhi can provide, the Delhi Metro breaks the norms. But practically, the urbanisation of the city is an inevitable process – until more big cities [appear], the key cities will continue to be overpopulated. The populations from other states have thronged to the capital at such a high rate that that it has been unexpected. The city, in response, is only doing what it can to accommodate the populations, and while this process might not be optimum, it might be one of the ways to handle such large populations. This place is where people come to make a life and fulfil their dreams. They can leave the ills of village and small-town life behind – like discrimination based on caste, lack of opportunities – and find a space to exist and even thrive. Despite their hardships, cities such as Delhi offer hope to millions of people who are compelled to migrate because of lack of means and opportunities.

Are you witnessing environmental transformation in the city you are working in?

Delhi is a fairly green city. While new buildings keep coming up by pulling down the green cover, new [trees] are also planted. After COVID-19, however, Delhi is infested with dust from large-scale construction projects cropping up everywhere. The only river running through the city is in an abysmal state – it is a drain of industrial waste. If one crosses it, one can smell the stench that it emits. Decade-old trees have been pulled down to create flyovers and other infrastructure.

Beyond capturing the built environment, we asked you to consider a narrative arc within your images that explores the quality of life in a megacity, the experience of moving around the city, where and how people work, and the impacts for community. With this in mind, what did your project reveal?

My project revealed a Delhi that lives in pockets. When people come out of those pockets, they lose themselves to the whole and dissolve themselves in the spirit of the city. My story is about the people who have made this city their home. This is a city that sustains hundreds of migrants who have brought a part of themselves to this place. Even in its travails and tribulations, they see hope of sustenance and growth, the hope of providing for a better life for their future generations. Despite the political turbulence that the country faces, this place finds a way to float and sustain. This is a place of possibilities, apprehensions and turmoil, and a boiling pot of people from all backgrounds. This is the idea of Delhi that I am interested in and am focusing on with this project.

If we accept the premise that the megacity is an engine for cultural and social change, how do you see that reflected on the street?

Delhi is an old city. One of the dimensions that it reveals is depth, testimony to the fact that this city has existed for hundreds of years: a poster on the wall with paint peeling off and revealing another layer of paint; walking along a street and turning around the corner to find a really old monument; simply finding a very old tree branch out in whatever space it can find. These aren’t visuals that one finds in a new city. This city comes together when injustice occurs – a protest against gang rape, or when thousands of people come together to stand with their Muslim brethren. It’s a city of problems that also offers hope. The street art and graffiti that was initially coming up covertly – and after, more overtly – gives a taste of the politics of the city. It’s a city that is concerned about the nation and its people and politics. It stands together in solidarity with communities and extends help to people around them. It also makes one slow down to appreciate history, architecture and legacy.