The Year of Living Dangerously

Raghu Rai's newly discovered photographs present a unique narrative of the Bangladesh Liberation War

01 May, 2013

FOR A PHOTOGRAPHER, what sets apart a war zone from other locations is the imminence of danger. Raghu Rai had gone along with the first column of Indian troops entering what was still officially East Pakistan from the Khulna border in early December 1971. Pakistani forces had retreated to defend the capital, Dacca, as it was then known. But after they had travelled about 50 km, Pakistanis attacked with artillery fire. Rai shot photographs of wounded soldiers being taken away. After the situation subsided, Rai was relieved to find a teashop and decided to have a moment’s respite, although the Indian army major told him to be careful. Just as Rai ordered tea and biscuits, a bullet whizzed past him. “The major shouted for me to lie down,” Rai wrote. “I did, and another bullet went past me. I crawled back to the shop and was told by the shopkeeper that the Pakistani army was on the other side of the railtrack, just half a kilometer away.” Photographers are meant to be impartial observers, or witnesses. But to the Pakistani sniper, Rai was a participant, entering enemy territory, accompanied by a foreign army. He was a target, fair game. He may have come to record, but he was intervening.

The photographs Rai took during that two-week war, when the Indian army marched to what is now Dhaka and defeated General AAK Niazi’s Pakistani army, are now published in a glossy volume by Niyogi Books, one which commemorates Bangladeshi bravery, and Indian support and generosity, and documents the Pakistani army’s brutality towards civilians.


Having stored away the images for safekeeping, Rai seemed to have forgotten their whereabouts. Two years ago, he excitedly called his friend Shahidul Alam, the gifted Bangladeshi photographer, to say that the lost negatives had been found. This was a huge discovery; Bangladesh was turning 40 in 2011, and the generation that fought for its freedom was fading. Alam, who has made it the mission of his life to document the Bangladeshi saga in all its manifestations by promoting visual culture through his agency, Drik, was himself compiling the works of photographers from Bangladesh and abroad for the book he published in 2011, TheBirth Pangs of A Nation. That book includes some of Rai’s photographs and went on to win an Asia Publishing Award last year. (I wrote the sole essay in that book.)

Meanwhile, Rai put together his own collection, with Alam writing its introduction. The Bengal Gallery in Dhaka exhibited Rai’s photographs last December, exposing a new generation of Bangladeshis to the pain their parents’ generation had endured. I went to see the exhibition with a Bangladeshi friend. Many young Bangladeshis paused for a long time before certain images, some taking pictures on their cellphones; for many young visitors, this was their first exposure to the horrors of that war, because for long periods of the past four decades, the country has been ruled by governments that were lukewarm about independence, with coalition partners who had once been hostile to the idea of freedom from Pakistan.

One of Rai’s most telling images was of a mother unable to feed her child because her breast was emaciated. You could count her, and her child’s, ribs. Looking at that photograph, two teenage boys started giggling, as if they had never seen nipples before. Seeing them leer as though the image was vulgar, evoking what could be read as bibhatsa (disgust) in the place of karuna (compassion) or krodha (anger), it was apparent why Bangladesh needs to reclaim its history, and why works like Rai’s photographs matter. The war was fought over four decades ago, and Bangladesh has just got around to prosecuting some leaders accused of having committed war crimes. The International Crimes Tribunal is meant to bring the accused to justice, but it also has the purpose of educating the generation that has grown up since the war, about what really happened at that time. For many, the knowledge of the Liberation War comes from stories shared within the family, but for millions of other Bangladeshis, Rai’s photographs can contribute to the growing need for information and understanding about the events of 1971.

Rai’s photographs are now published in a volume, Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom, a 116-page book with 91 photographs, with the introduction by Alam and short texts by Rai describing his two assignments during the war. Rai first went in August to document the stories of refugees, and then again in December, with the Indian army. Those two journeys are distinct—one tells the story of a human tragedy; the other of human conquest, culminating in the Pakistani army’s surrender to Indian forces and Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s triumphant return in 1972.


RAGHU RAI is an elder statesman of Indian photography. Mentored by the legendary Henri Cartier Bresson in 1977, after he joined the elite agency Magnum, Rai is known for his astonishingly intense images, for capturing the essence of drama in people’s lives, finding exceptional stories in that fraction of a second where he spots something extraordinary that the normal eye might miss. Two stand out for me: the day after Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in June 1975, Rai shot a man pushing a cycle with two children on it and a woman behind him, with scores of policemen all around. The caption said: “The situation was normal in Chandni Chowk.” In another, nearly a decade later in India Today, Rai photographed two schoolboys—a Hindu and a Sikh—with arms on each others’ shoulders, walking to school. Taken within days of Operation Bluestar, the caption expressed the hope that such would be the future of Amritsar, and the bitterness and bloodshed would be forgotten. There are other great Rai images—of Mother Teresa, of India’s great classical musicians in an inspired series with Inderjit Badhwar for India Today magazine [Disclosure: I was their colleague at that time, between 1988 and 1991.] and the haunting image of a child being buried in Bhopal, his lifeless eyes admonishing the viewer, symbolising the thousands who died in Bhopal after the methyl isocyanate leak from the Union Carbide plant in December 1984.

A Rai photograph is unique in the way it is interested in the human being—especially the eyes, as Alam points out in his essay for the book. He is able to get close to the subject and focus on the eyes, centering stories around individuals; but through this approach, his photographs suggest ways in which events affect the lives of those who have no control over larger forces.

Rai first went to witness the story of refugees from East Pakistan in August 1971. As he notes, in August “the monsoon was at its peak. The skies were deep grey and it was raining all the way. The border was not just porous, it was overflowing from all sides. The refugees with their meager belongings were pouring in ... they were drenched by the rain, suffering and fatigued. There was a kind of a silence—nobody was talking. There was nothing the others did not know.” Their lives were now lived in public; they were part of a human drama the world was meant to witness. Rai was among those who made sure it did.

What the refugees didn’t speak about was how their crops were burned (Rai shows us scorched land), their homes razed (we see shells of homes), their women raped (in a moving photograph, Rai closes in on a young woman lying on a cot, wearing a sari without a blouse, her eyes still and dry, her belly bigger than her slender frame, indicating the child she is carrying but did not want, personifying the harrowing saga of rapes during that war; by some estimates, there were more than a quarter million rapes). And even though you only see her in the photograph,  you get her sense of loneliness—she is possibly shunned because the father of that child she is carrying is a Pakistani soldier. The relentless violence and humiliation the farmers and fisherfolk and boatmen faced are visible in the exhausted faces of the refugees, their wrinkles pronounced, their tears glistening.


The photographs are in black and white. Rai goes close enough to a man’s face to let you count the whiskers on his face. His camera stops near the bloodstains on a sari. The head looks up in another image, and you want to caress the wounded brow. He sharpens the focus on the human being at the centre of the image, separating him from the detritus of what remains of the possessions that he carried with him across the border. The queue of refugees shows some who are wizened, some determined, carrying their children on their shoulders, their possessions on their heads. A little boy walks, wearing only a buttonless shirt, smiling and talking to older boys, oblivious to his surroundings. They are leaving their past, walking to a different future.

‘Future’ and ‘safety’ lie across the river, to cross which the boatman may demand the last bag of rice the refugee is carrying. Times are bad, but business is business. There are ten million of them, overwhelming the Indian state—for some time, Tripura has more refugees than residents. They live in large pipes and in makeshift tents. Rai shows a stack of pipes, their interiors dark, except for the men who raise their heads and stare back at this odd man taking their photographs. They live on rations, forming orderly queues which go out of focus as Rai fixes the lens on the few in the front of the queue. Children are bathed, old people die, rain lashes the landscape, diseases spread easily and are fought by stubborn nurses and doctors working selflessly, round-the-clock, in the camps.

In many ways, Rai brings to life Allen Ginsberg’s haunting poem, September on Jessore Road:

Millions of babies watching the skies

Bellies swollen, with big round eyes

On Jessore Road – long bamboo huts

No place to shit but sand channel ruts

Millions of fathers in rain

Millions of mothers in pain

Millions of brothers in woe

Millions of sisters nowhere to go

The lives of these “millions” are lived in the open: nothing is confidential, nothing secret. Rai witnesses it, clicks the image, preserves it, recording it for posterity.

However close to reality a photographer gets, essentially he stays aloof, detached, distinct. Susan Sontag reminds us in On Photography (1977) that while real people are out there killing other real people, the photographer remains firmly behind the camera. Non-intervention is critical. She writes: “Part of the horrors of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of the Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayonetting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where a photographer has the choice between a life and a photograph, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who records cannot intervene.”

To intervene or not is a moral choice: the veteran Newsweek correspondent Edward Behr had a point when he titled his memoir of reporting from the war in what was then Belgian Congo, Anyone Here Been Raped And Speaks English? (1978). For the photographer, as it is for the reporter, the story is more important than finding relief for the victim. Kevin Carter, the South African photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of a starving child in Sudan crouching, bent, almost supine on the ground, while a vulture waited, took his own life a year later. And in his suicide note he wrote of how he was tormented by images of war and starvation.

There is a human narrative in the dry statistic that ten million refugees crossed the border and came to India. This book tells some of those stories. What would Sontag make of Rai’s images? To be sure, they are intrusive. To be sure, the photographer is in control, not the subject. To be sure, the subject’s narrative will now be public in a manner that Rai chooses to depict the story. And yet, Rai honours the subject, photographing her with humility, so that the hero that emerges is not the photographer, but the refugee. And this is not because Rai hasn’t tried hard—the composition is impeccable, as is the way Rai lets natural light fall on a face to illuminate it, the way he allows shadows to darken moods, and the way eyes glisten and shine in the images.

In Regarding The Pain of Others, Sontag’s 2003 book that can be seen as a follow-up to On Photography, where she continues her arguments about photography, but brings them to a closure with provocative questions, she wrote: “Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and causes of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers. Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?”

Wars affect everyone, but women and children bear the brunt because they are rarely among the combatants, and they face the consequences of decisions others have taken on their behalf, without asking them. Rai’s triumph lies in how well he shows the effect of war on women. There is the woman with her head covered, gnarled fingers resting on her knees, over which she places her chin. A woman carries her sole surviving pot in her right hand and the breastfeeding infant in the left, a gamchha covering her torso. Another woman, older, sitting in a tattered palki, is being carried by two men with taut muscles. A windswept rice field with a coconut tree in the background, and an old woman walking, with her back bent at a right angle, a stick guiding her forward, her feet bare. Another girl, not yet a woman, bare-chested, stirring a pot, her hair wet. A naked child lying on the ground, between the large pipes in which families have taken shelter. And that image, of the mother holding tight her child whose ribs you can count. The child looks at the mother’s emaciated breast. The mother herself is skeletal and realises she can’t feed her child. Pathos has rarely been captured so movingly; and yet, responses vary—in Dhaka, those young men at the art gallery giggled when they saw her.

RAI Is A STORY-TELLER, who likes to focus on the human drama. If Associated Press’s Joe Rosenthal took the memorable picture of six determined soldiers valiantly raising the American flag on Mt Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, consecrating a military conquest by endowing it with patriotism, Rai shows his soldier spending a quiet moment in a village playing with a rabbit. Does that make Rai’s soldier more human? Or is this tranquil moment what the soldier needs before he can knock down the doors of collaborators’ huts, and beat the hell out of the men who have acted as informers for the Pakistani army? Rai’s photography sidesteps that question.

Rai’s great contemporary, the late Kishore Parekh, who went to the same war, and was often at the same place shooting the same people, saw the war differently. In Bangladesh: A Brutal Birth (1972), which collects Parekh’s photographs of the war, there are several images similar to Rai’s—but many are more brutal. Parekh’s book is now out of print, but a dedicated fan has uploaded it on the website Scribd, from where it can be downloaded free of cost. Rai shows hungry children crying out for food; Parekh shows a dead boy lying on the road, the bottom half of his body soaking in blood. Parekh’s soldiers don’t play with a rabbit; they knock down doors, beat up people, look inside the lungis of men to see if they are concealing any weapons. Rai’s Mukti Bahini guerrillas ride a cycle-rickshaw with their guns, smiling at the photographer. Parekh’s are meting out instant justice to those who helped the Pakistani army during the war. In Parekh’s universe, death is real: a crow picks at the open wounds of a dead body.

Parekh’s soldiers are loading weapons, ready to battle. Rai shows the cloud of dust that the army trucks emit as the convoy leaves for the battlefront. Both show wounded soldiers carried by their comrades; the resignation in the eyes of a Pakistani soldier who is unsure what the enemy will do to him, as he is being laid on a stretcher with Indian soldiers carrying him to a field hospital; the anxiety of an Indian jawan, being calmed by his compatriots as medics treat him. And there are ghastly images of dead bodies—adults and children, lying in ponds and along riverbeds. Faced with that finality, Rai doesn’t hesitate—he shoots. But in the way Rai has composed that specific shot, it seems as if he has paused to consider lighting, and shot the bodies with sunlight resting on their torsos, granting them some dignity as they lie in a ditch. Parekh, too, shows dead bodies, but he horrifies you by bringing you closer to a dead face, reminding the viewer that there is nothing glorious in such a death. The contrast between Rai’s vision and Parekh’s is clear: for Parekh, photography is the means to record reality, however unpalatable; for Rai, photography is imbued with a purpose, to capture the human spirit.

Rai ends triumphantly, taking us to the public surrender ceremony, where a confident General Jagjit Singh Arora strides purposefully towards the desk, alongside the Pakistani General Niazi keeping his eyes low, unable to look at the camera, trying hard not to betray any emotion. (In Parekh’s book that photograph appears only once, taken from some distance, as the men walk to the tent). Later Parekh takes us to the streets of old Dhaka, where the Mukti Bahini guerrillas have some unfinished business to deal with. Parekh is right behind them as they crouch and move stealthily towards abandoned homes from where snipers have fired, as they remain unwilling to surrender. A single shoe lies abandoned in the lower right corner of the photograph, suggesting someone escaped in a hurry. Surrender or not, we are at war.

Parekh’s book ends with a beautiful image of two boys chasing a calf in a mustard field, almost presaging Rai’s image of the Hindu and Sikh boy in Amritsar 13 years later, seeking to remind the viewer of a happier, more innocent time. A pastoral, more pleasant past will become the future; the future won’t mean an escape from the past. Parekh’s image is black-and-white and you can’t see the shining, overpowering yellow of the mustard set on a bright green field, but the sun does the trick, making the mustard shimmer even in a black-and-white image. Rai’s focus is on people, though, and his final image is of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, greeting his people from atop a flower-bedecked truck, flanked by Tajuddin Ahmed who had run the government-in-exile. Over a dozen supporters have crammed the top and the truck tries to make its way to a political rally, amid what can only be described as a sea of humanity.


There is a story in these pictures—a neat beginning, middle and end. Both Rai and Parekh witnessed the war. Parekh, more the journalist, wanted to ensure that nothing he saw would get forgotten; Rai, more the artist, wanted his pictures to tell the human story. Both chose to record, not to intervene. But what they recorded forced the world to intervene. And it is stories of such interventions—of George Harrison and Ravi Shankar packing Madison Square Garden at the Concert for Bangladesh, of the international community’s warm-hearted relief for the refugees, of the courage of Indian soldiers and Mukti Bahini warriors—that ended the tyranny the Pakistani army had unleashed.

Sontag implored her readers to react to the images they saw—to reflect, to pay attention, and to learn from the mass suffering. What caused it? Where did the responsibility lie? “Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged?” she asked. Parekh’s photographs forced us to think 40 years ago; the discovery of Rai’s negatives, and indeed the publication of this volume, remind us why those questions are still relevant.