Showcasing Derry Moore’s exhibition in the capital of West Bengal makes perfect sense. Kolkata is in fact unique, insofar as it bears a beautiful and complex tension between outbursts of relentless spiritual energy and the calm of certain architectural havens, set amidst the bustling city. This fleeting tranquility is associated with a poetic sense of decadence, of which Derry Moore captures the beauty, as if he were documenting a moment in time and a place condemned to disappear. Grasping this daunting beauty is the defining experience of a traveller in Kolkata. Indeed, in Moore’s photography, the Marble Palace becomes a ravishing display of interior decorations surrounded by decaying walls. As the owners of the palace elegantly lounge in one of the rooms, we cannot help but see the resemblance with Roy, the Bengali landlord of Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), who lounges in his estate while the world around him changes dramatically.
The reference to Satyajit Ray’s work is one Derry Moore makes his own, as the photographer faces in awe this unsettling and paradoxical aspect of Bengal’s identity: as we gaze at the timelessness of the spaces and structures, we are also struck by an uneasy sense of imminent extinction, and at times of death, as if life was expiring from that interior space. ‘I am documenting the end of a period in India’, Derry Moore states, ‘and it is very poignant, just like in one of Anton Chekhov’s stories.’ His photographs are indeed melancholic evening ragas, the Vedic musical scales. Therefore, we observe in the photographer’s eye a form of sacred reverence and respect towards the moment he is capturing, in the midst of India’s dynamic evolutions and transformations. Because of this form of reverence, Derry Moore’s photographs seem to almost invite us out of the places he is showing us, or at least urge us to tread lightly on these ancestral floors, and to whisper as we pass through.
A palace in Murshidabad – ‘a city I long to visit whenever I am in the region’, claims Derry Moore – takes on the role of an urban oasis, abandoned by time, yet open to the traveller as a safe haven.Before it is too late.
By Hassan Bey