BENGALURU, India — If a city is one thing in the daytime, it may well be a different entity altogether come nightfall. For many city-dwellers, the night brings with it a sense of quietude, of rest and recuperation before the next bustling day. The city at night is also a workplace, a playground, or a dread-inducing limbo space of sorts for countless others — such as shift workers, after-hours partygoers, the homeless, and, of course, insomniacs.
Indian artist Dhruv Malhotra is one such insomniac, and over a period of eight years, he spent many of his sleepless nights wandering the streets of Noida, a semi-urban satellite of Delhi, photographing the nocturnal cityscape. Photographs from Malhotra’s nighttime sojourns are now on view in a solo exhibition, After Dark Trilogy: Noida Soliloquy, Sleepers & After Party (2007-2015), at GallerySKE in Bengaluru.
Drawn from three different nighttime photo series, all of the images on view were made by exposing color-negative film for long periods — in some cases, for several hours. The results have an almost ethereal, otherworldly glow.
Malhotra, born in 1985 and raised in Jaipur, writes in an artist’s statement that he finds a “powerful appeal” in the night: “The silence, the palpable sense of time and the unknown draws me to photograph.” While living in the aggressively developing region of Noida, he was drawn to desolate spaces in and around the city — areas “on the edges of urbanity, inhabiting a borderland of sorts, null spaces that are almost invisible.” Compounding the lure of these places on the edge is the prevailing sense of disquiet in Malhotra’s photographs; the viewer can sense his need to be constantly aware of his surroundings and his subjects.
During his trips into the night, Malhotra often photographed people sleeping out in the open. The resulting series, called “Sleepers,” highlights how, come nightfall, public facilities assume other identities, often transforming into makeshift beds. The subjects, almost exclusively men, are pictured dozing in some unlikely places: at the back of a yellow taxi, stretched under a blanket between two plastic chairs, on a park bench, at the edge of a construction site. Most are exposed to the sky and air, except for one man who is draped in a mosquito net.
It is perhaps owing to how habituated they must be to sleeping anywhere at all that the subjects manage to look somehow comfortable, even at home. In creating “Sleepers,” Malhotra removed the geographical constraints he had placed upon himself and travelled beyond Noida to other Indian cities. It is to be noted that in India, those that sleep in the open are not always homeless. Some certainly are, but others may be guarding a work site or farmland, while still others might be driven outdoors in search of some respite from stifling heat inside homes during the summer months.
While wandering Noida’s streets after dark, Malhotra would also chance upon empty sites used to host temporary events, from wedding parties to religious ceremonies. Vacant, nondescript land by day would turn into party venues at night, a chameleon effect that sparked Malhotra’s interest. The lights, decorations and music blaring from loudspeakers during such events can be enough to delude one that is day and not night.
Malhotra’s photographs of these sites became the After Party series, depicting the aftermath of all the merriment that has passed. There are chairs to be picked up and sent back to where they were rented from, food waste to be cleared, buntings and curtains to be brought down and folded away before the area is vacated. Malhotra’s images capture a period of silence after the last guest has left and before the dismantling begins. There are some sleepers here, too, men catching a few z’s before the long task before them. Without the guests and other accomplices, the venues are now stark, almost melancholic.
The third series, called Noida Soliloquy, lays bare the rip and curl of how night unfolds in the hinterlands of the city. Quiet and subtly haunting, the images, with no human subjects, picture empty fields with tall lonesome trees backlit by the glow of distant industries; empty benches in a park; a rabbit figurine staring out into a clump of trees; wispy fog floating over fields; and white tombstones set in a frame of green weeds and trees. Noida, like every city, is loud and crowded during the day, so these images alter our ingrained perceptions of our manufactured urban landscapes.
In his book Dark Matters: A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City, Nick Dunn characterizes the city at night as a kind of darkened mirror world where time and space seem to shift, a place that enables escape from the confines of the daytime. Malhotra’s photographs illuminate the darkness, shedding light on the overlooked, crumbling, and scrubby parts of cities, documenting this separate sphere in which the norms of sunlit hours don’t seem to apply.
After Dark Trilogy: Noida Soliloquy, Sleepers & After Party (2007-2015) continues at GallerySKE, Bengaluru (2, Berlie Street, Langford Town, Bengaluru, India) through October 19.