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A frozen Indian moment

A frozen Indian moment
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It’s not too difficult to borrow Harold Bloom’s Oedipal Complex metaphor in aesthetic forms other than poetry and in locales other than Europe. In the context of Indian photography — more so from the days after Independence — Raghu Rai can be seen as a direct descendant of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Sunil Janah, especially how they represent Indian reality.

Like Bresson and Janah, Rai strikes a relationship with his animate and inanimate subjects, though mostly through freezing a moment in history, making many of them reference points for posterity. Two of his most famous works — the child being buried in Bhopal after a ‘corporate fraud’ killed thousands and a compassionate Mother Teresa  in
Mother Consoling a Child
— became the rallying points for causes and concerns.

And, that’s where Rai is an Indian photographer, whose genealogy can be traced to Janah’s coverage of the Bengal famine. One of Janah’s most evocative pictures of the famine is a beautiful mother holding a beautiful, but malnourished, child in her arms in the midst of a grave human tragedy. Rai has seen many a tragedies in his time and spent hours freezing their aesthetics. He was in Bhopal and in Ayodhya on those moments.

A day before the mosque was brought down, there was an absolute calm in Ayodhya town. Rai’s religious man in
The Day Before …
felt it while sharing his nuts; the elephants of stone showed it too. The appeal of this work lies as much in its beauty as in the historical context that would follow.

But, Rai is more Indian than any other photographer of his generation. And, he is an Indian of a certain kind, the kind that the Independence movement conceptualised, the kind whose cinematic imagery Raj Kapoor perfected, the kind that the world later called Nehruvian sensibilities. In Rai’s frozen moments, there is that national connect with Hariprasad Chaurasia practising by a seaside rock in Bombay and that roadside flute player in Delhi who is connected with the master through the sound of the long wooden pipe. There is also that shot of M S Subbulaxmi which speaks notes of Carnatic music.

Rai’s sensibilities find the best expression when he touches upon Indian spirituality and the migrant. While Varanasi is a recurrent motif of his work, he is always on the move to shoot the changing India, the India found in its massive drive to look like the developed West. That is where Rai translates the spirituality of Teresa and politics of Nehru and looks at the world from below. The Hindu mourners at Manikarnika Ghat, the labourers on a Hyderabad highway project and that ‘Sky Scraping’ shot overlooking the Connaught Place skyline carry in them the Indian Rai.

From that A Baby Donkey shot to the days of India which has rejected both Nehru and, in that sense, Rai, the glimpses of his oeuvre at the Stainless Gallery look like precious jewels of a lost national imagery.


DETAIL


At: The Stainless Gallery, Ground Floor, Mira Corporate Suites 1 & 2, Old Ishwar Nagar, Okhla Crossing, Mathura Road
On till: 25 September
Timings: 11 am to 7 pm
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