The photographer's new collection of images are an affectionate tribute to the elements of the South East Asian country that may not be around for much longer.
In his book Delhi Dilemma, David Bailey turns his camera away from the fast-emerging new face of the capital – the traffic, shopping malls and glass high rises – to linger instead on bits of India that have yet to be stripped of their national identity and globalised. He photographs beggar children at the roadside in battered garish dresses, their hair reddish from malnutrition. He takes us to old cinema halls, and focuses on curved ceilings the colour of blood oranges, the elegant swirl of a staircase moulding, the wistful suggestion of glamour in a sign that reads “Balcony – Rupees 80” and “Dress Circle – Rupees 50”, next to an old fire-extinguisher. There are touching images of a pavement photographer (“Instant colour photo in just five minutes”) who uses old techniques (scissors, I think) to superimpose his subjects’ bodies into the jaws of a black-and-white lion.
The pictures are beautiful. Many feel timeless – the bangle stalls in old Delhi, exploding with colour, the cows with beautiful horns, the bicycles – making the book an affectionate tribute to an India that may not be around for much longer, an attempt to capture something before it vanishes. But at his London studio, Bailey responds badly to the suggestion that he might be nostalgic for a side of the country that is swiftly disappearing. “I’m not nostalgic. Once something is gone, it’s gone,” he says, a bit spikily. “I like change. There’s something Buddhist about it – continuous change is wonderful.” His photographs are not an attempt to capture any preconceived aspect of India, he says. “I’ve no political agenda. I’m looking at what I see. I’m not political and I don’t judge.”
It’s unfortunate that he’s feeling rather ill-disposed to the Guardian when I visit him, the result of a quarrel he’s had that morning with someone he suspects works for the paper. Our discussion of his trip to India gets interspersed with more and more information about a man he describes as “a fucking square from squaresville” who appears to have told Bailey to “go screw yourself” during an altercation over who had right of way in the alleyway by the Guardian building, which, it turns out, is next to Bailey’s flat.
Details begin to pour out when I ask if he feels optimistic about the direction of change in India. I never find out what he thinks, because he replies, “I don’t feel very optimistic in London. I’ve already had a fight with some wanker from the Guardian this morning.” He mutters something about not feeling optimistic about the human race in general, and it takes a bit of time to draw the conversation back to Delhi. He was clear from the outset that he had no interest in taking pictures of the modern side of India. “It’s so ugly. It looks like a nightmare to me. I knew I didn’t want to go to the skyscrapers. I went and had a look, but there was nothing there for me. It’s such a hodgepodge of bad taste… more amusing than depressing.”
Bailey has been going to India since the 1960s, has taken pictures of everyone there worth photographing, from Mother Teresa to Aishwarya Rai, but Delhi Dilemma is the product of an intensive burst of three weeks’ work, three years ago, with lots of pictures poured into two volumes. “It’s better to do it straight away,” he says, “because your eye gets used to things very quickly. You have to start taking pictures on the way from the airport. If I’d been there for three months, it wouldn’t have been better. If I’d been there for six months, it wouldn’t have been better.
“You can’t stop. No time for sunbathing…” he adds. He worked with an assistant from 6am until midnight. “There’s not one minute free – if you want to eat, forget it,” he laughs. When he works in India, he survives on bananas and oranges. “The assistants usually get sick. I’m used to it, so I never eat anything I can’t peel.”
Despite the speed with which he took the pictures, they took a long time to come to print, partly because he spent months getting his publisher to find the right sort of paper – an uncoated, unvarnished product with which he is delighted. “Smell it!” he urges. “Smell it!”
The dilemma the title refers to was the difficulty of distilling into one book the character of a city “that has been photographed by lots of great photographers, including lots of Indian ones, since the 1840s”. He didn’t want to make the pictures feel too National Geographic or too touristy, and is happy with the way they’ve come out – quick snapshots that he says should be looked at together, as “a complete story”, more like a movie than individual images.
He likes working in India. “It’s harder for me to photograph people here because people recognise me. There, you just look like a tourist. The more you look like a tourist, the better. Half the time, they don’t even notice you.”
Some of his favourite pictures in the book are of blocks of colour – mint green, deep blue and ochre – juxtaposed like fashion textiles, but on closer inspection they turn out to be bits of plastic and strips of sari material that seem to make up the roof of a slum dwelling. He quotes Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who said “pink is the navy blue of India”, and wishes he’d thought that up himself.
He doesn’t find the poverty particularly disturbing. “I’ve been to more depressing places – Sudan, Afghanistan. Can’t get emotionally involved… You have to be a bit outside it. You want to adopt those children and bring them back, and then you’d end up bringing 30 million back.”
He didn’t find the heavy traffic particularly oppressive, either. “You find that in London. It took me an hour to get to the Ivy the other day. Have you driven across Paris lately?”
The mention of traffic reminds him of the man (“about 45, sandals, of course”) who stepped out in front of his car that morning, forcing him to brake and then failing to thank him for stopping. “I said, ‘You might have been polite and said thank you,'” but the man flicked him two fingers. “He was so aggressive. Then he walked into the Guardian building. So arrogant… Tell them to be careful who they pick on next time. I could’ve been Reg Kray.”
After this, he doesn’t much seem to want to talk about Delhi, and switches to explaining how he was persuaded to vote for the first time in his life in the 2010 election. He voted Conservative after taking a picture of “that finance guy… what’s his name? Osborne. He made so much sense, Osborne. I never voted before. I always thought they were a bunch of wankers, politicians. I still think most of them are a bunch of wankers.” He is also a great fan of the London mayor. “I voted for Boris, too. He’d be great to have as prime minister. We could have a bit of fun,” he says, pauses, and adds: “I think Obama is good – I’d vote for him.”
He occasionally enjoys taking their pictures. “My two favourite politicians to photograph are Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher,” he says, particularly Thatcher because “she was good fun and had a sense of humour”.
Did he find it odd, the experience of voting for the first time aged 72? He laughs. “I’ve had some weird experiences. That wouldn’t be in the top 10. That wouldn’t even be in the top 500.”
• Bailey’s Delhi Dilemma, by David Bailey, is published by Steidl at £80. To order a copy for £52, including free UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop.