Thursday, 9 January 2014

Travels: Time in Black and White, Shimla

There’s the Christ Church in front of me. It is a famous heritage building in Shimla, an 1857 British colonial artifact, by now quite literally a monument to time, shining with a fresh coat of paint as tourists take photographs with digital cameras in front of it. There’s the same Christ Church by my side, in the display shelf of a photo studio. This time it appears in black and white, romantically fading into a grey sky, with nothing but vast swathes of snow giving it context (sort of frozen in time, then). Further context is given by the coffee mug on which this black-and-white church presides. It’s a souvenir to be sold to tourists who come to Shimla.

For anyone who gives it a moment, and not just for a heritage-minded enthusiast, inevitably, the church-on-the-mug feels more ‘real’. The photograph hides what it carries most obviously and powerfully – appreciation of, and nostalgia created by, a black-and-white image, both for its evocation of an era long gone and its wistful beauty. It hides this seduction of black-and-white behind the form of the church (that has never been black and white in its 150 years old history, except in photographs) helping us make-believe: “this is how the church must have looked once, when it stood in solitary splendor on this now crowded ridge”.

 It won’t help at this point to be reminded that even then, 150 years back, the church was freshly painted and coloured. It won’t help to be told that this photograph is simply a black-and-white reproduction taken in an age when the church (then about 30 years old) was, in fact, a rather new church. And it would be a nearly rude shock to be informed that it has been digitally printed on hundreds of mugs, mass produced for the District Commissioner of Shimla, so they could be given to conference delegates as a memento.

Desire is stronger than fact. Not for nothing does the photo studio completely eschew selling contemporary coloured photographs of Shimla’s heritage buildings on its mugs.

A view of the Shimla Mall on a souvenir mug