Standing in front of the photography titled ‘At Diwan e-am- 1973’ by the ace photographer, Raghu Rai, featured in the ‘Delhi....That Was’ show curated by Anubhav Nath for his own gallery, Ojas Art, New Delhi, I feel drawn into the picture. There is an old Muslm man with a grey religious beard, in his white kurta and pyjama and a distant look in his eyes walking towards the photographer, perhaps totally unaware of the young photographer standing before him, taking a low angle shot. Two girls walk along with him; and we do not know whether these girls have come with him or not. They are in their own world of innocence, laughing on some private jokes, and too are unaware of the camera wielding tall figure of Raghu Rai. A question comes to my mind. What could be the age of these girls now? And what could be they doing today? Are they dead or alive? Married, widowed or orphaned?
The girls must be ten or eleven years old in 1973. Then they must be fifty years old now. At the age of fifty, these girls, as I assume that they are Muslim girls, must be grandmothers of several children. Perhaps, they might be living in the same locality of Old Delhi without even once venturing outside the new part of the city. They may not even know that their pictures are featured at Ojas Art Gallery, next to the historical Qutub Minar and a person, sitting hardly a kilometre away from the same gallery, is currently thinking and writing about them.
Life is like that. Someone somewhere is always writing about someone else’s life, determining the courses that it could take. While a photographer freezes a moment in life, a writer re-animates it into a narrative. An eminently adorable show created out of images culled from the archives of Raghu Rai, ‘Delhi...That Was’ tells the story of people who live/d in the city of Delhi. It is the story of Delhi too; a bunch of stories encapsulated in a series of frozen moments. The time span of these pictures ranges from 1960s to 1990s. Seen against the backdrop of four decades, Delhi is a city of flux and transition, which still has not realized its own character in its fullest possibilities. Perhaps, Delhi would never find one because history says that ‘Delhi is still away.’
Delhi is still away. From what, one may ask. Delhi is a magical city, a city of Djinns as William Dalrymple puts it. Here every one is a Djinn, kept captive inside their own lamps of existence. They come out when their real mettle is tested by rubbing against the harsh realities. Unlike several authors and photography artists who have captured the images of the city of Delhi, in the present show, which is a cross section of a possible retrospective of Raghu Rai, the artist does not try to feature the historical flux of the city through iconic images or the images of monuments and landmarks that define Delhi. Instead he takes a different route, giving Berger-ian interpretational possibilities. One simple glance at the picture, ‘At Quitab Minar 1972’ tells us how the three men walking past the monument, with their heads down, open up an ocean of interpretations that include class, caste, economics and politics.
Raghu Rai, though he has portrayed the seats of power and ‘powerful’ people of/in Delhi, he seems to be having this idea as a working thread in most of his works; people’s power. He cannot envision a city without the presence of people. Most of them belong to the working class and middle class, though the choice of subject does not seem to be too much deliberated as the artist himself says that it has always been his effort to understand the city of Delhi through its people. As a young man he came from Punjab in 1960s and he found the city in the text books was absolutely different from the one that he had seen with his eyes. Then he viewed it through his lens and it became habit and then an obsession without knowing that one day he was going to be the chronicler of ‘modern’ Delhi through the people.
There is always a sense of unsettlement in Raghu Rai’s pictures. Coming from Punjab, the partition memories and narratives must be strong in the artist when he was training his camera at the people. The people in Delhi streets were looking at the monuments, they were trying to eke out a living there, they were just like tourists looking at the monuments and suddenly unsettled by a sand storm. What one could deduce from these pictures is the idea of exodus and migration; two phenomenon that construct any modern city in the world. A modern city is constructed through the obfuscation of the existing and the old or the remodelling or re-articulation of the same. There are interpolations that leave the original (as seen in the historical monuments which too had a history of obliteration of some other structures and times) remain the same but meaning changed. Museums are the places where objects from a historical past are brought for display and changed as per the needs of the contemporary times. Similarly, a city is a museum where the historical past is brought as it is and interpreted for the present’s convenience. People are the interpolations in the space of a city and the city’s architectural and changing geographical and topographical memories are a ‘given’ historical past that is conveniently altered by the contemporary times. Raghu Rai sees people as the interpolators as well as the interlocutors of a modern city and he captures them with a sense of objectivity. Delhi is a museum of memories retold; and Raghu Rai takes part in its incessant retellings.
Though people narrate the history of Delhi, it is the power and powerlessness that people hold and succumb to that govern the dynamics of it. Raghu Rai does not posit the weak against the powerful or vice versa; no clever juxtapositions and jaded comparisons in his works. The people are seen in their own context but what he does not fail to register is the structures of power that control the locations and movements of the people. Interestingly, in these pictures, we do not see modern buildings like hospitals or schools or scientific or military establishments against which people generally seen vulnerable. The mightiest of structures that we see here are the Rastrapati Bhavan (Presidential Estate) and Red Fort (Old Delhi). Historically speaking, they link up two extremes of power centres from two different time-space correlatives. Ironically, in both the cases people are seen ‘witnessing’ than partaking in the processes that these buildings presumably engender (or had engendered). Witnessing is an act of exercising power over the incident as we know the gaze of people or the presence of them control/change the course of events. But at the same time we understand that witnessing is a sort of effeminization of the people who are not allowed to participate therefore rendered weak and useless. Raghu Rai’s works feature these two aspect of power relationship as seen and exercised by people.
Before closing this rumination over the pictures of Raghu Rai, I would like to touch upon two aspects of this selected body of works; one, the notion of nostalgia and two, the aspect of male gaze. Though pictures are texts that are no longer the texts of the author once they are taken away from the writer’s desk (read, from the archives of Raghu Rai), the autobiographical element imprinted in these pictures cannot be overlooked because of the very title that the photographer himself chooses for the show. It says, Delhi...that WAS. The artist posits Delhi in the past (tense) and tries to feel what Delhi ‘was’ for him and by saying that he asserts that the Delhi of ‘those’ days were different and it ‘was’ something else. Perhaps, it is one way to be non-judgemental about a city that has changed treacherously over a period of time. Male gaze is something that often a photography artist (male) is accused of. Raghu Rai’s pictures in this selection do not flaunt male gaze. However, in some of them we see the male eyes of the artist finding some interesting female figures in the line of pure objectification. The absence of a strong gaze, luckily absolves the artist of being a saint in the eyes of the hardcore feminist critics (in the case of this set only)