Click here to read “How India inspires digital revolution“, Kavita Ramdya’s review of the Raghu Rai retrospective at Aicon Gallery London in the 5 February 2010 issue of “News India Times”.
“How India inspires digital revolution” by Kavita Ramdya in the 5 February 2010 issue of “News India Times”
My best friend recently visited India in what was a whirlwind tour to introduce her recently-acquired husband, a man of Canadian and Hungarian descent, to the country which her family resided as Brahmin Keralites for many generations. Over the course of five weeks they traveled far and wide: Mumbai; North India’s Rajasthan (Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Udaipur); Kerala and its backwaters; Cochin; and for the finale, the Maldives. Upon returning from her trip, I expected to promptly receive a Snapfish album or Facebook update where she would share her photos with me. No such luck. Although India is not new to her (she’s visited the country at least a dozen times), it took as many weeks as she was in India for her to review and prune four thousand photos. And even after much ruthless editing, she only whittled down the collection to eight hundred, far too many for the average friend or family member to process in one sitting.
Her photography binge served as a cautionary tale for when I took my own semi-newly acquired husband (we’ve been married for more than four years) to India a month later. Still, over the course of ten days he took approximately one thousand photographs.
What is it about India that transforms financial analysts and writers, Java programmers and polo players, to slaves to the camera? How does one explain the country’s inexplicable power to turn casual photographers and semi-adventurous tourists into humans with SLR appendages? What is it about India that inspires tourists to become the digital Marco Polos, exploring and colonizing the country from behind a telephoto zoom lens and with the click of a button?
My theory is that what makes ordinary people into photographers upon arriving in India is its ability to overwhelm: what makes it both exotic and raw is also beautiful and intimidating. What better way to hide than from behind a camera’s lens?
Explaining to people why visiting India is such a powerful experience is how I imagine an astronaut feels when describing the awesomeness of exploring a new planet: the sensation of feeling like so minor a character on the world’s stage provides a bit of a breather from the practice of indulgent self importance, a luxurious curse modern life affords us. Realizing that I am only one individual in a country of a billion and that life is teeming around me as I stand still watching it go, sensations that the late George Harrison of Beatles fame articulates in the hit “Within You Without You”, enable a full-bodied sigh of relief, a relief that I am happy to report is still with me three weeks after returning from India.
Some make photographing India a state of life-long passion, pursuit and employment. Aicon Gallery is currently showing “Raghu Rai: A Retrospective”. The show’s earthy black-and-white photographs of India are a stark contrast to the gallery’s sterile white walls and the hushed murmur of guests surveying the works. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who pioneered photojournalism, took the Indian engineer-turned-photographer under his wings: forty years worth of photographs make up Raghu Rai’s ouvre which documents the mundane (riskhaws and bathers) to the extraordinary (moments of religious epiphany and familial bonding). His documentary style captures a specific India, different from the Mughal India or Bollywood India, one which “teems with activity” according to Aicon Gallery Director Niru Ratnam. Rai’s photos are democratic, documenting “crowds of workers and other individuals who go about their daily business in cities, streets, marketplaces, docks, fields and riverbanks.”
With the barrage of real-time media images, from paparazzi to mobile phone photos posted, blogged, tweeted and shared on Facebook, it is hard to believe there was a ever a time when photographers took the time to pose a subject. However, Rai’s images of India were pioneering ones sixty years ago and they remain relevant today, something glaringly evident in the retrospective. Focused on documenting a moment that will never recreate itself, emotionally connecting to anonymous subjects who will lose themselves in the bustling crowd, capturing a people made up of many, distinguished from each other along religious, regional, linguistic and caste differences, Rai captures the pluralistic society that is India.
In light of seeing friends and family members become fanatical photographers, it is no mystery what compels a photographer like Raghu Rai to devote his life’s work to one subject: India. However, rather than hide behind the camera lens, Rai uses his camera to tease, prod and push his viewer towards India, giving him or her the opportunity to witness “reality, the truth – not only its physical aspect, but, the inner vibrations of that space or person”. In contrast to color photographs which are quick yet frequently shallow fixes exhibiting exotic India, Rai challenges the viewer to come closer and inspect his black-and-white photos, demanding discipline and interest and the ability to put aside the sensational for the serious.
And what is Rai’s mission in his photography? According to this viewer, Rai attempts to document a time past, offering historical memorabilia for scholars and civilians alike. He is like a diarist painstakingly recording what he or she has eaten for breakfast and read in the news. Rai attempts to make every moment immortal even as India changes at breath-taking speed, one minute a 3rd-world country characterized by regional and religious tensions and the next of BRIC status, on the precipice of financial windfall and global prominence as a world power. Raghu Rai is the country’s empathetic and loving paparazzi photographer if ever there was such a thing.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” www.bollywood-weddings.com