Capture Everything

01 August, 2011

A SURREAL TIME TO WANDER in the streets of Calcutta is the brief period immediately after Durga Puja when the pandals are being dismantled. Carnivals usually bring desolation in their wake. With the goddess and her crew gone, those worlds of artifice and illusion in which they had dwelt for a few days begin to vanish in stages, and the city returns to a sanity that feels as unreal as the madness that preceded it. Children play cricket among the apsaras of Ellora on Dover Lane. Old men assemble for adda along the foothills of Kailash in Bhabanipur. On Chandni Chowk, rickshaws rattle past the Twin Towers with the aircraft still sticking out awkwardly. In the evenings, this mix of normal and strange becomes part of a fluorescent world of blue, green or red as the neons and fairy-lights that are yet to be taken down come up inside the trees and on house-fronts, as if to illuminate the crazy afterlife of magic.

On one such evening, about three years ago, I remember going for a walk among the vanishing pandals. Suddenly, inside a large enclosure on one side of a half-pulled-down structure, I noticed what looked to me like a crowd of ghostly Calcuttans strangely frozen in the act of jostling and pushing their way to a ghostly deity. The goddess and her worshippers were all larger than life in their stillness, yet instantly recognisable. But, because of the wash of bizarre green light from the overhanging neons, it took me a while to realise that what I was looking at was an immense black-and-white photograph. As I looked, a beggar crept towards the image and started inspecting it with something like incredulity, his body hyper-real against the backdrop of those greyscale ghosts. I too went closer. I saw that what we were both looking at was a Raghu Rai photograph, enlarged into a hoarding for a mobile-phone company.

As I continued on my walk, and over the next few days, I realised that the city was full of Rai’s gigantic black-and-white photographs of itself. They loomed above shopping malls, glimmered between apartment buildings and arched across flyovers. With each image bearing its maker’s signature proportionately magnified, it was the headiest sort of solo show any photographer could have dreamt of. What a splendid way, I thought, of outgrowing the book as well as the gallery! Wouldn’t Gursky want to be shown in Düsseldorf like this, or Araki in Tokyo? The only contemporary artist who is permanently installed in a public space in Calcutta is Husain—on a wall inside a popular roadside dhaba. And while reading for this review, I discovered that Rai and Husain admired and understood each other, though Rai seems to express little other than hearty disdain for art photography. But it is possible to think of Husain and Rai together as iconic in terms of what they have done to perceptions of ‘Indian’ art and photography respectively. They have given to the world an idea of India that has become interchangeable with their visual rhetoric, pitch and scale. To the common viewer in India, each has come to embody his chosen medium. Get on a tram in Calcutta, or a local train in Mumbai, and start a conversation about photography with the person sitting or standing next to you, and it will begin with Rai and end—especially in Calcutta—with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

That experience of seeing Raghu Rai’s Calcutta juxtaposed with Calcutta’s Calcutta came back to me as I turned the 33x30 cm pages of Rai’s latest book of photographs, Varanasi: Portrait of a Civilization. It presents a selection of Rai’s work in Varanasi since 1975, tracing his movement from black-and-white analogue to digital colour, and the enlargement in scale and palette that accompanied this shift. Coffee tables now have to be very large indeed to be able to hold Rai’s books, and many of the photographs in Varanasi are immense panoramic shots printed across the book in vividly contrasting colours. It is this literalisation, in terms of scale and popularity, of what it means to be a ‘Magnum’ photographer that makes it inevitable that billboards would be the only way of showing Rai’s photographs after they become too large for books. (Is that why billboards figure repeatedly in the photographs as well—the photographer’s ideal, and longed-for, exhibition space?) And when even billboards are not large enough for the expanding frames and formulae of Raghu Rai’s India, why not turn to Bollywood? (Husain, too, had never quite weaned himself from cinema.)

The most remarkable thing about Rai’s Varanasi work is the extent to which it is able to sustain a consistency of composition over more than three decades. Very early in the book, one is able to identify certain ways of arranging bodies and objects in space to produce depth and expanse. These arrangements then begin to work like a set of sure-fire formulae that are repeated with increasing confidence to produce the same startling effects of juxtaposition, contrast or variety. So, it has become as pleasurable to recognise a Raghu Rai photograph (even when it has not been made by him) as it is to compose and take one on a Sunday afternoon on Kedar ghat.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that India is a land of fascinating paradoxes. So, the accidents of contrast or contradiction in Rai’s photography are captured usually through a set of relations between foreground, centre and background that also creates the depth of the image. The singularity of a face in the foreground might contrast with the variety of action in the background, setting the One against the Many. It is also universally acknowledged that Varanasi embodies the mingling of Life and Death with spiritual detachment and bovine indifference. So, a burning corpse in the foreground leads to a munching cow in the centre, which leads, in turn, to a grinning boy in the background, standing in nothing but a langot against the mystical far-shore. And so on, as the eye works out the pictorial game in each photograph before moving on to the next.


Rai confesses to Geoffrey Ward, in the introduction to this book, that he wants to “capture everything”. This desire produces another compositional formula in Rai’s photography: the deliberately flattened human, animal and architectural panorama of the ghats seen from the river during the bathing hour. It gives to the eye—in a single movement from one end of a double-page photograph to the other—nothing less than everything that a “decisive moment” can hold. But such a ‘chaosmos’ of colourful simultaneity becomes a dil-maange-more version of Cartier-Bresson in Rai, whose double-spreads give you at least three decisive moments for the price of one within the conventional rectangle of documentary photography. In one black-and-white photograph, between a man squatting in a lungi on the left and another fingering his own prepuce in kurta-pajama on the right, we are given an amusing array of postures, gestures, expressions, clothes, hand movements and gazes to dwell on. And this horizontal inclusiveness is generously replicated in different settings—though bathing and burning are what human bodies are mostly seen doing in Varanasi.

Rai’s habit of providing his viewers with the fullest of darshans fosters a tendency to show everything that ultimately sets him apart from his most important acknowledged source of inspiration. Cartier-Bresson’s iconic images acquire their enduring significance from what they leave out and do not show. World War II, Partition and Gandhi’s assassination are some of the visually off-stage sources of meaning from which the reticence of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs derive their resonance—meanings that are seldom made literally manifest within the photograph. Rai himself, according to Ward, is aware of how “dangerous” India could be for photographers. But there are other photographers of Varanasi—William Gedney, Graciela Iturbide—who have approached this danger by turning away from inclusiveness towards techniques of rigorous and deeply subjective exclusion. Iturbide, for instance, uses the square (instead of rectangular) frame to create an intensity of focus that transforms a potentially overwhelming location into metaphysical images of inscrutable precision.


“I have never been interested in photography,” Cartier-Bresson is reported to have said often, to the bewilderment of his followers. He gave up photography in the 1970s to turn to drawing, for the former was for him “an immediate action”, while the latter was “a meditation”. Unlike his Surrealist contemporaries, he never thought of himself as making art when he made photographs, and when he did want to make art, he abandoned photography for another medium. Today, when that separation or hierarchy between art and photography is disappearing, Rai’s seemingly unshakeable confidence in not making art could sound robust or reactionary, depending on which side of the art-photography bed you roll out of. Perhaps the key to his assertion lies in those billboards I had begun to notice during my walk. By using Raghu Rai’s images to sell, not cameras, but mobile phones, they were lifting photography to heights of allure even while levelling it down to a democracy of unstoppable image-making.

Very early in the book, one is able to identify certain ways of arranging bodies and objects in space to produce depth and expanse. These arrangements then begin to work like a set of sure-fire formulae that are repeated with increasing confidence to produce the same startling effects of juxtaposition, contrast or variety.