Donkeys are stupid. But Raghu Rai is not. Somehow Raghu Rai, the ace photographer cannot forget a donkey that had made him aware for the first time that he could be a photographer or rather could do photography for a living. So long as Donkeys do not speak back other than braying and kicking with their hind legs we cannot say for sure whether they approve our views or not. Donkeys appear stupid because they can stand still for a long time without thinking anything. If someone amongst us does so, we call him the enlightened one. They appear terribly servile as the carry heavy loads without any hint of objection. Right form the childhood we are taught to see donkeys as the lost ones like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh or the foolish donkey that jumps all over the washer man and in return get thrashed thoroughly. Poor donkeys; but even before Raghu Rai tells us why a donkey is important for him as a photographer, we notice the small photograph of a donkey hanging at the Ojas Art Gallery, New Delhi where a comprehensive show of the photographer is currently on. A book with the same title, ‘Picturing Time- the greatest photographs of Raghu Rai’ has also been published by Aleph to celebrate the exhibition.
(Raghu Rai's first photograph)
Don’t underestimate donkeys for they have helped in establishing a few careers in the history of art and culture. In 1966, the French filmmaker, Robert Bresson directed a movie titled, ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ with a donkey named Balthazar as the protagonist. In the film Balthazar becomes a saint and in the world of film making Bresson too becomes a master film maker. Later in 1977, Indian filmmaker, late John Abraham made another film titled ‘Agraharathile Kazhuthai’ (Donkey in a Brahmin Neighborhood), which established his career as a genius filmmaker. When Bresson was making a saint out of Balthazar the donkey, in India, somewhere near Delhi, another nameless donkey was running to make the career of a young man who eventually became the living legend in Indian photography, Raghu Rai. The story goes like this. Raghu Rai came to live with his photographer brother S.Paul who was working with the Indian Express. One day, Rai wished to have a photography trip to one of the suburban farms where he saw a donkey running and after a few minutes standing frozen. He clicked to the amusement of the kids who were following the donkey and the man behind it with a camera. Back home S.Paul developed the film and found the donkey picture had come off good.
(Bhopal Gas Tragedy)
Camera is a tool that can make a photographer out of donkeys these days. You click there is a picture. And you are a photographer. More than the number of sunsets and sunrises, clouds and flowers ever happened in this universe, there exist photographs of these taken by those who wield a camera in their mobile phones. Narcissism has gone to those heights from where people could fall into their deaths with a few selfies taken while coming down headlong. With the film loading cameras and rationed availability of films, Raghu Rai could not have so easy with his tools as he would tend to these days. Fifty years have been passed since his first image of a donkey and the iconic images that Raghu Rai has created over these decades have become defining images or pictures through which we understand the incidents related to them. The best example is a doll like face of a dead child submerged in earth during the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Published by the international and national agencies, this picture became the defining picture of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
(Indira Gandhi at AICC session 1966)
Pictures could speak volumes and Raghu Rai’s pictures are (like many those of the internationally acclaimed photographers) like libraries unlimited. Rai started off as a photo journalist with the Hindustan Times, assisting the legendary Kishore Parekh. After a few months he moved to another short lived eveninger called Lok, edited by Rajinder Puri. Soon after that he became a photographer for the Telegraph and remained there for many years. Photo journalists have two different working methods; one, they have a story and they look for the appropriate photograph. Two, they have an eye for an incident, an occurrence, which Cartier Bresson calls as the ‘decisive moment’ and through capturing it they could develop a story around it. Raghu Rai prefers the latter method while many of the contemporary photographers prefer the former one. They are more like narrators and followers of a particular ‘event’ for a longer period and then they pick and choose their frames from the series that they have taken around and along the ‘event’. Photographers like Raghu Rai go for the decisive moments and a series of other moments, out of pure instinct and also by accidents, and come out with wonderful and enduring images. I am not here to say one is better than the other method.
(1971- Bengal migration)
The exhibition currently on at the Ojas in New Delhi, presented by Anubhav Nath, the director of the gallery, has ‘the greatest photographs’ of Raghu Rai and the same tag line is there on the book cover too. I find this adjective ‘greatest’ a bit problematic because the pictures that we see there on display are not the ‘greatest’ as you have seen a few other ‘great’ images by Raghu Rai elsewhere. The book that claims the same has five periods of the photographer’s career and also the representative works from each period. There is a difference between ‘representative’ and ‘greatest’; representative is a humble word that suggests the editorial or curatorial intervention in ‘selecting’ those representative works. But when one says that these works presented here or printed in the books are the ‘greatest’ then we are bound to face a sort of absolutism and unfortunately the images do not do justice to the word ‘great’ though they are classy photographs culled from Raghu Rai’s oeuvre. The problem of such qualification inadvertently puts the genius and apparent greatness of the photographer in question as the selection here are not definitely the ‘greatest’ even when they are great.
(Darjeeling toy train)
I justify my argument with the concrete examples from the images that are taken by the photographer during the last two decades. The master class Raghu Rai is definitely during the first three and half decades of his career starting from mid 1960s to mid 1990s. The photojournalists had a greater access to the fortresses of political power by virtue of their profession and the tool that they have around their necks besides them being there in Delhi. See the great photographs that have come out of post-independence India or just during the anti-colonial struggle in India and you could see that all of them are politically charged images even when they have sociological and anthropological interests in them. Take the examples of Homai Vyaravala, Kulwant Roy or anybody of their ilk, you understand that all of them had the access to the circles of the movers and shakers of Indian politics. Kishore Parekh and Raghu Rai (though Raghu Rai was ten years younger to Parekh) caught the most pivotal moments in Indian politics during the immediate post-independence decades. 1960s we see Raghu Rai’s ambivalence in the early years with a donkeys and streets giving way to much assured images of political wheeling dealings in Delhi. When he decides, by instinct, Indira Gandhi as his focus of attention, he gets the best pictures of the decade.
(Church Gate, Mumbai 1994)
In 1970s, Kishore Parekh makes the most poignant images at the streets of Bangladesh where Indian Army had fought on behalf of the freedom seeking Bangladeshis against the displaced Pakistani Army. Rai’s works during this period looks weak compared to the works of Parekh. But he is comfortable with the Indian politics even then. The images of Indira Gandhi, General Sam Manekshaw, Jayaprakash Narayan and so on have now become iconic and historical. Once again 1980s give ample chances to Raghu Rai to explore Indian politics and Indian landscape. By the time he reaches the new millennium, he too is forced to do a lot of experiments with printing and digital cameras. Raghu Rai became an internationally renowned photographer by 1990s and he got the chances to travel abroad. His travels both within India and abroad had helped him to come up with some interesting images from European countries and Jerusalem.
Raghu Rai is the photographer of people; he excels when he trains his camera at people. With an iota of erotic gaze or an authoritative male gaze he captures the most defining features of the people both well-known and unknown. There is a picture of a house painter’s family from Rajasthan. The photograph almost reminds one of the paintings of Amrita Sherghil titled the ‘Hill Women’. A little bit of skin has appeared in Rai’s pictures at times when he has extensively photographed Benares. But when he takes the stark portraits of people, he becomes over sensitive about their personality than their sex appeal. Author Arundhati Roy is seen sitting in her winter casuals with her sharp eyes staring back at the camera, Indira Gandhi is seen sitting thoughtfully with a sort of tenderness that she rarely displayed, Shehnai Maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan enjoy is a cheroot and so on are wonderful portraits that time would remember forever. Similarly, unknown people gain iconic status and also a lot of human dignity when they pose for him against the artificially painted portable backdrops, in his Backdrop series.
(Father, Son, Grandson)
While speaking about his works, Raghu Rai says that his act of photographing and also seeing a photograph done are like a ‘darshan’, a sort of seeing with ‘reverence, awe, devotion, love and illogical admiration’. One could understand when the image of Raghu Rai (or any photographer with a sense of his own vocation and mission) waiting for the ‘event’ for the image to ‘happen’ comes to one’s mind , what he means by the word darshan. He elucidates it with an incident. He was waiting for clicking a flock of sparrows. But the ‘event’ was not happening despite the presence of a lot of sparrows. Then suddenly a crow landed right in the middle of these birds and it was the moment and he clicked. Rai remembers that the black bird flying evening after giving him the ‘moment’ from the ‘event’. Rai also feels that the photographic experience is like getting and returning a smile from stranger in the street with nothing to give or nothing to take from each other. We too can smile at the images of this exhibition and feel good.