Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sees,Shoots and Leaves

A narrow road by Delhi’s Mehrauli jungle will lead you up the stairs into Raghu Rai’s haphazard office. Haphazard, till you enter the serenity of his room where white window panes frame an endless expanse of green. Uninterrupted by billboards, artificiality and performance. Much like his photographs, you think. Rai ,69, is dressed in a black t-shirt over which he wears a red woollen kaftan. Behind his desk hang some of the old portraits he has included in his new book The Indians- Portraits From My Album that explores the history of portraiture in India and includes iconic portraits by Rai and photographers like Raja Deen Dayal.
Rai had been a full time photo journalist for 12 years in the sixties and seventies. He documented the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, photographed Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa among other people. There is no residue of the mad rush of journalism about him today. There is a gentleness and stillness to him which is perhaps what allows for his frame to be real and his subject free.

Talking to Rai will convince you that portraiture is half internal process, the photographer’s attitude and half the sharpening of intuition. (“You allow the supreme and the supernatural to enter you.” The digital revolution or the romantic magic of film are a mere backdrop to this relationship.
“Intutive moments come and disappear like a nudge People don’t notice,” he says, nudging the air gently, suddenly and beaming. To Rai, the portrait should capture the physical , mental and spiritual entirety of the person.“You have to be patient, you have to be sensitive, quick and yet gentle enough for the person to reveal.”
His image of Faiz Ahmed Faiz has that hazy poetic quality to it; his image of MS Subbulakshmi is infused with an other worldly intensity having caught her at an opportune musical crescendo. The photograph of former Pakistani president Zia Ul Haq is almost caricature like in its portrayal of tyranny. Now Zia was a man who intensely believed in himself and could enrapture anyone with his speeches. “Unlike a writer, As a photographer, you don’t listen at all; you just connect to the person’s energy.”
And sometimes even Raghu Rai uses tricks. Notice the stern look on Satyajit Ray’s face. It was taken when Rai told Ray he was leaving. As soon as the film maker turned around with that strong expression in his eyes, Rai was ready with camera to capture that moment.
Rai allows the subject to have a direct relationship with the camera, to be in his element. Photographer Dayanita Singh once said “photography is not the truth.” Suggest this to Rai and he bursts out laughing, dismissing it, insisting that it is too dramatic a statement for him. “I am nobody to make a truthful statement about somebody let them make their own statement,” he offers.
By now, the green outside glimmers in the cool February rain that will soon end winter. Peacocks and parakeets compete for stage space in the sky. Rai insists we stop talking about him and shifts attention to the first half of the book- portraits from 1855 to 1965.
“People say these old portraits or like other old portraits but that is not true”, he says, marvelling at the technical brilliance despite the pre digital age
This section , with a preface by Rai reveal the coloniser’s gaze on the early portraits that gradually transforming into subject’s revealing a self confidence and an aspiration for grandiosity over the years. The cold gaze of the men and women in Bourne and Sheperd’s pictures melts steadily into a warm presence in front of an Indian photographer.
The studio tricks- Raja Sawai Man Singh being blessed by gods, smoke denoting a family tree, individual portraits of the Maharajas of various Indian states superimposed against a palace in Jaipur with a digital precision, the works. One can also trace the strong influence of painting in the early works.

The long exposure time required at the time determined the mood of those photographs. “Everybody is like this (demonstrating an uptight look) with riveted eyes you know. You can hold your breath but all those emotions coming and going in your eyes intensifies your look,” says Rai. Rai’s new work picks up from there, to play with the past and expand it into the present, quite literally. The new series he is working on (the two colour pictures that are included are a “teaser”) plays with backdrops placed in the centre of the frame and “life” occupying its sides. He walks over to the window and picks up a print where women are posing in front of a scenic backdrop and outside it , there are various energies floating around, women at a handpump for example. It’s his way of including contemporary India into the template of the past.
Rai who uses digital as well as film is not one to be nostalgic about the past but to him the modern portrait is “fluent, quick but not so deep”. A fraction of a second is too little time to accommodate intensity and truth.
Photography has imbued a silence into Rai, an alertness and a seeking, not an intrusive seeking but a subtle, even playful one that will catch you unawares till you realise a picture is taken and a moment captured. His daughter calls and he says to her “baby, bacchu please don’t go out, you are still weak, but he is convinced by the end of the conversation to let her.

Rai is a follower of Guruji Maharaj but doesn’t call himself a spiritual person. It is like this, he tells you.
“Satyajit Ray’s early films had everything in them. When he started working out of his intellect, his films were better than ten others in Bombay but it didn’t have that extra spiritual magic, it had become planned. Unless the supernatural comes and plays a part and reveals itself, it is good and nice and informative. It is like the difference between making love and an intellectual orgasm.”

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