Hauz Khas has revealed its wonders to artist Saba Hasan over a period of many years, and in unexpected ways
We moved into the neighbourhood with two kids and a Labrador. Everyone’s favourite way to enjoy the day was to cross the narrow road to the Hauz Khas monument and play in the adjoining parks. My early pictures here feature Neha on the jungle gym and Aman spinning on the carousel with Nutty chasing them in circles. Later, when I could leave them unattended, there was the stunning presence of the 14th-century monument. This madrasa is mentioned in Ibn Battuta’s travel diary as having had one of the best libraries in India with astronomy, mathematics and medicine as its scholarly highlights.
I pointed my lens towards the dry moat only when I got tired of picturing the scholars in the madrasa watching the stars and poring over their notes under the uncertain lamplight. Their search for truth fascinated me. My early works of this area were sketches and oil paintings of the stone walls, arches and the wise presiding dome. For my first show in 1998, the madrasa became an icon for knowledge, truth, tolerance and survival, much like a lighthouse pointing the way.
Then, one year, they filled the moat, not with whimsical, undependable rainwater but gallons and gallons of it flowing from mysterious sources (they said it was from the deep green valley), until all we could look at was this huge sparkling sky mirror. Like a large, ever-changing impressionist painting, inspired by the dancing light of Delhi’s sun-dappled seasons.
Next year the birds came, almost as many as in nearby Sultanpur. Grey ducks from China flew in the winter after, and my lens turned away from land to this fascinating, glowing cloud catcher.
I bought a new zoom lens, a small bag to carry my music and started hunting for fresh images. With my painter’s eye, the photographs began turning into more elusive frames, perhaps doomed to chase myriad hues in the bright watery shimmer. My lens felt compelled to look for the chromatic effusion of a Monet in Hauz Khas.
Living next door to the park for 15 years and walking here almost every day has given me an immeasurable advantage. This place has watched over many of my life’s experiences. It has been an escape and an exercise route, where I have walked to the varied sounds of Glenn Gould on the piano, the wry but always forgiving Leonard Cohen and the beautiful, strong voice of Nina Simone. Unsurprisingly, this magical park has been the unique inspiration for a lot of my work.
Nature is predictable in certain ways but it has a complex design. I have been here through different times of the day, seen it in shadow and sunlight, over many seasons. Yet it has also revealed, as my children’s turbulent teenage years did, those unexpected, quicksilver moments, which I tried to capture before the wind turned direction and the light suddenly fell. These photographs are from the last few years when walking and photography have been agreeably symbiotic.
The images are a result of a deeply solitary exploration of colours, lines and shadows. This gradually grew into a body of photographs that is not so much about communication, but rather more about my love of light, of darkness and of water—of this place itself and my long relationship with it. The stooping branches are for me, after so many years, a familiar pattern. In very little time I can frame them into my favourite weblike composition. I have learnt from my patient but precise camera when to take a shot to catch their shaky reflection; the water has taught me where to find the right orange or the cloudy whiff of pink or that mossy green. I have crouched low on the muddy bank looking through this no-longer-new lens for weeks on end, shifting my gaze just so; slowly skimming the lake, etching its beauty into my mind’s eye and then swiftly and surely pressing the shutter.
Saba Hasan is a Delhi-based artist and anthropologist. She has been awarded the National Raza Award for Painting and fellowships in art and culture from Syracuse University, Ecole D’Arts Visuels, Lausanne, and the French Cultural Ministry, among others. She is currently working on a book about practitioners of abstract art today.