Great photographs have secrets. And in black and white, there is something mysteriously and tantalizingly withheld, even when the world seems laid out as plainly in the memoirs of a morning in Varanasi in 1976. Raghu Rai, the colossus of photography in India, needs no introduction.
Rai’s Picturing Time naturally contains many such “secrets”—and among the legends of gharanas, politicians and spiritual messaiahs like Mother Teresa and Dalai Lama, Rai is a master. In a survey of his work that threads five decades, the anticipated mysteries have an added power, for Rai is also an iconic artist who has given definitive form to the Indian individual’s story. Soul notes in the thick of rhythm emanate as you espie a definitive study of Ustad Bismillah Khan, 1988, which goes back in time to the days of yore. Born of a rare degree of classicism is Pt. Hari Prasad Chaurasia, 1988, playing snatches of a raga on the banks of the river Ganga. Rai’s personal notes complete the iota of history.
Among the portraits in close up, M S Subbulakshmi is the persona worthy of scrutiny. These images of her lost in the Thyagarajakritis are those that hold our gaze because they are not possessed by fiery praise or clammy liberal platitudes. If anything, Subbulakshmi’s visage, eyes closed, has a quasi-religious, mystical air.
Whether it’s memoirs of a melody or the portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama sitting in expanded grandeur with nimbus clouds floating in the skyline, Rai’s language has about it a dulcet drama of quiet moodiness in rhythms. The photographs of Mother Teresa, the Saint of the Gutters, have the uncanny sensation of looking past the surface of a society into the secret inner life of this greatly loved nun. “Either you capture the mystery of things or you reveal the mystery,” Rai tells this newspaper.
The folds of her sari seem smooth compared to the folds of her skin, the ageing wrinkled hands clasped in silent prayer are but a token of love, faith and deep devotion. This panoramic study of Mother Teresa becomes the citadel of contemplation.
“I believe that the photographer’s job is to cut a frame-sized slice out of the world around him, so faithfully and honestly that if he were to put it back again, life and the world would begin to move without stutter,” says Rai.
Among politicians it is Indira Gandhi who makes a compelling subject. Always clad in a sari, her Caesarian nose and the carriage of her empress like countenance give us vignettes of the corridors of power. Photography then becomes a tool for posterity, and the lingua franca of a cultural current. Graced with statuesque proportions, many images in this suite prove to be an elegiac study, revered for its signatures that are Raghuvian.
In many ways this book celebrates an Indian vernacular. Time is painted by iconic images that move between past and present. In an age of frenzied excess, troubled by calamities and ceaseless changes, the coloured images are vulnerably quaint. When Rai captured the TajMahal tossed in the tempest of clouds, we discern his study moved beyond a mere eulogy, he brought an angled antiquity to bear.
However, it is the monochromatic meanderings that win over the coloured because they inhibit a unique candour, a dare spiked with Rai’s individuality and his untiring spirit.