Clicking with Parliamentarians

Since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, a joint photo of both houses of Parliament has been a tradition—with a Datt behind the camera.
Agya Ram Datt photographed the 
1950 Constituent Assembly members
Agya Ram Datt photographed the 1950 Constituent Assembly members

In January 1950, Jawaharlal Nehru started a pre-parliamentary tradition involving other political leaders with a ‘group photo’. The reason was perhaps realpolitik.The Constituent Assembly sessions had been stormy; to sit together on a gentleman’s agreement for a photo, putting aside the arguments for the time being, could lower the heat.

Agya Ram Datt, a photographer who had picked up from his father Anant Ram the expertise in clicking the British India establishment, was called in for the photograph—in it we see Nehru at its centre looking watchful, Maulana Azad, unreadable behind dark glasses, an unsmiling Ambedkar at the far end and an inscrutable Patel.

Clicking British viceroys and Indian maharajas had been Anant Ram’s forte. He passed the baton to his son Agya Ram, who, besides the Constituent Assembly members, photographed members from the first Lok Sabha to the tenth. His son Gopal Krishan Datt started assisting him from the sixth; his run continued till the 15th Lok Sabha.

Anuj Datt, 41, the fourth-generation Datt, began assisting his father from the 13th. From the 16th Lok Sabha, it has been his show.

Anuj sees in these photos the passing of an age, the aging of politicians, the swings of destiny, consolidations of power, arrivals and exits, planned or sudden. And body language—the way politicians present themselves---as an index of how they see themselves. No photograph, as semiologist Roland Barthes would say, is neutral, “it’s an image without code”, it is about authentication of a time.

The group photo of the 17th Lok Sabha members shot by Anuj Datt in 2023  | SHEKHAR YADAV
The group photo of the 17th Lok Sabha members shot by Anuj Datt in 2023 | SHEKHAR YADAV

“When I see old and new Lok Sabha pictures, I see where a politician starts and where s/he ends,” says Anuj in his home-cum-studio at Gurugram taking us through his archives. “We have a photo of Vajpayee in a corner seat where he is squeezed in, and then we have one where he is PM. When Indira Gandhi was PM, we have one where Rajiv is in the last row as a young MP and then he takes front seat after his mother’s death as PM,” Rahul Gandhi, too, will make it to the front row—he was standing in the second-last row in the 2023 group photo—should he become leader of the Opposition. “Rahul has no airs, he always behaves normally…. Prime Minister Modi is always prime ministerial and so is his smile—it’s neither too much nor too less. But he does enjoy being photographed. Manmohan Singh as PM was always to the point. The photo done, he will leave.”

The protocol

The joint parliamentarians’ shoot has a protocol. The photos of Lok Sabha MPs are clicked once every five years; for Rajya Sabha, every two years. “After byelections, when it is clear it will have a full house and there will be no empty seats, a file is put up and sent to the Speaker’s office, a date is decided and a file is next sent to the PMO to block his time for the group photo,” says Anuj. But there can be other considerations. When Rahul Gandhi was suspended from Parliament on a defamation case in March 2023, chances were, his MPs would not participate in the group photo, so the photo was taken after he was reinstated in the House in August.

The 2023 photo is also a document of the end of an era. It was taken in the old Parliament building, and just after the shoot, “everybody moved to the new Parliament. This was the last event at the old building”, says Anuj. Talking of the importance of the joint photo shoot, DMK Rajya Sabha MP Tiruchi Siva says: “It’s a record of the way we were, of who were with us….”

How shoots are done

The shoot, too, has to be pulled off in a two-hour slot where Anuj has to keep the camera rolling while maintaining eye contact with the country’s most powerful politicians.

Anuj Datt with 
the Eastman Kodak camera.
Anuj Datt with the Eastman Kodak camera.

“I have to get the work done in an environment I cannot control. It’s all about how you handle people, they won’t stand as you want them to stand, they are typing away or talking on the phone while you want them to look ahead…. Basically, it’s all done in the minute or two after the prime minister arrives and yet it must look spontaneous,” he says. Witty politicians can be, in this instance, a spoiler.

“Just before the camera would roll, Laluji is prone to wisecracks. Once he said, ‘Dekiye kisi ke sath bhed bhav mat kariye (Look, don’t discriminate against anybody),’ and had everyone in splits…and I had to take another shot,” says Anuj with a smile.

He also explains that the aim of the photo is also not standardisation but to maintain the look of Parliament as a house with regional diversity. “We have MPs from all over, so the point is not to make them look alike…a man from a village does not have to look like a Delhi MP. Karan Singh, I remember, would always sits like a king, legs in front, leaning back on a chair…. Father taught me not to fix that,” he says.

The day is also not without drama and posturing—sometimes of the kind seen in school. Of parliamentarians jockeying for a place to stand behind the central chair of the PM, of an MP standing in a back row fainting and being taken away in a stretcher, then on recovery making sure he is back in the photo; of a minister nudging Anuj to finalise the photo where he is looking better and getting clicked with goggles on and goggles off; of a shipping minister falling into a fountain to general laughter; of bruised egos.

“In a year when he was not a minister and it was an NDA government in power, the protocol officer told Pranab Mukherjee he had got no front-row seat and that he had to stand, so he began to leave. My father requested him to stay and made sure he got a seat…. As President, he was of course very particular about how his office functioned. At a Rashtrapati Bhavan shoot, where he was to be photographed with army officers, the lights tripped for 15-20 seconds and there was an enquiry…. I took responsibility, otherwise someone might have lost their job.” So, ultimately it doesn’t all boil down to the camera but it is a major factor.

Anuj photographing ASEAN leaders.
Anuj photographing ASEAN leaders.

What if the camera fails?

While the group photo may look as if those being photographed all sat in one straight line, it is the camera that rotates. Politicians actually sit in a semi-circle. They are shot mostly in natural light from 20 feet away. The camera used by Anant Ram Datt—and his son and his grandson, Anuj’s father— was an Eastman Kodak, which he had bought from a British officer for `100 in 1914 to shoot landscapes. Eventually the Datts moved to a digital camera.

But the chief worry then and now is what if the film is not exposed. Once two days before a shoot with more than 700 MPs, around the time of the Vajpayee government, the secretary general of the Lok Sabha called his father and said if he didn’t get the photo what would he do?

“I was in the room. I was shaken by what he said,” recalls Anuj. “Father said, ‘If that happens, I’ll have no option but to commit suicide.’ I realised the level of his seriousness, and what being given this job means.”

What Anuj learnt from the experience is to leave nothing to chance. “Two days before the Parliament photo-shoot, I don’t attend any social functions so that I stay focused. And that’s the least of it,” he says. To take the group photo of both houses of Parliament, something that will now be organised with the 18th Lok Sabha elections having just been concluded, he is ready. And so is his trusty blue blazer and tie. “It’s how I have seen my father dress for the occasion,” he says.

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