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.