It is always exciting when a Raghu Rai exhibition comes to town, and anticipation is palpable leading up to the event. But over the last couple of years, they have honestly been a bit of a let-down. In spite of the weight that ‘brand’ Raghu Rai carries, the city has hardly experienced anything startlingly new or fresh in the recent exhibition of this master’s work.
Photographs that revolutionized prevalent norms and broke new ground in terms of content, idiom and mood at one time, subsequently came to be hailed as visual ideals for many a shutterbug, aspiring to capture the marginalized essence of his or her city. As a result, the fringes gradually came to be pursued with such consistent ardour that they soon became the central subject of anything with a claim to empathetic authenticity.
Raghu Rai, On a Rooftop, Archival pigment print, 20 x 30 inches,1989; Courtesy Tasveer Art Gallery, Seagull Arts and Media Resource Center, and the artist.
It would be audacious to suggest that Raghu Rai is to blame for creating or initiating the hyper-accelerated circulation of such photographic stereotypes. But numerous exhibitions of some of his most celebrated works and an equal number of books later, one yearns to see what the man is capable of doing next. It is to the credit of Rai as well as the gallery curators that such canonical images are exhibited so frequently, thereby ensuring their longevity in public memory. But when they occur in different galleries in the same city in a span of a year or less, it comes across more as an effort to fill in long gaps between other, better-conceptualized shows.
Even so, it is an undeniable joy to revisit some of his classics – images that re-defined the very idea of India in ways more pithy and eloquent than the spoken word; especially, those images that depict ordinary lives – human or animal, and sometimes, human ‘and’ animal – making shimmering, glittering stars of anonymous names and faces. What makes Raghu Rai a brand, a household name, and surely among the most ‘popular’ photographers in India is the absolute ease with which he presents a city – marking it out as a distinct cultural zone, even without necessarily betraying its tell-tale signifiers or giving away its most identifiable markers. If anything, he ‘creates’ these markers. Street urchins perched on road-dividers, for instance, have become, ever since Rai’s photographic interjection, an exotic prototype that has come to define Calcutta. And his photographs are not mere documentations, even though, they do, of course, perform that function. Their sheer geometry, their angular compositions, their positioning within a frame, could well be compared with Modernist abstraction à la Kandinsky. Captions/descriptions become redundant, for while these places and characters stand out in independent glory, they also smack – each one of them – of a collective sense of belonging to a whole that is India. In prayer, in occupation, in leisure, in terrain, they reek unmistakably of a nation that was and will be, in spite of its changing economic society.
Raghu Rai, Baby Donkey, Archival pigment print, 20 x 13 inches, 1965; Courtesy Tasveer Art Gallery, Seagull Arts and Media Resource Center, and the artist
These black-and-white photographs capture children of the street in Calcutta, labourers working in dizzying heights in Delhi, and holy men in Benares. A particularly captivating image is that of two old men passing each other by – one bent over and the other ramrod straight. The philosophical undertone of such an unprepared moment is what makes it a masterpiece, elevating it from an ordinary mundane slice of time, to one that embodies a human spirit somehow timeless and free of shackles of space, society or culture. Apart from the costume of one man, these two men could belong to any culture, and imply the universal inevitability of old age and death thereafter. I was also struck by the photograph of a donkey with its hauntingly innocent eyes staring straight at the viewer from across the frame. This image is gripping not merely because of the choice of such an unconventional solo star of a photograph, but also in its simplicity and undistracted sense of focus.
All said and done, bringing Raghu Rai back to a city that has provided much inspirational fodder for the artist’s oeuvre will undoubtedly help familiarize a new generation with his works—a generation that is growing up on the instant nature of photographic practices thanks to the digital revolution. Such exposure might inspire young photographers to find equally innovative and compelling formulas for documenting their own times, as Rai did a generation ago, rather than simply rehashing old formulas.
(Image on top: Raghu Rai, Two Old Men, 1970, Archival pigment print, 18 x 27 inches; Courtesy Tasveer Art Gallery, Seagull Arts and Media Resource Center, and the artist)