Raghu Rai’s ‘People’ deserved a larger format (Book Review)

Book: People – His Finest Portraits; Photographer: Raghu Rai; Publisher: Aleph; Pages: 188; Price: Rs 999

For one who has grown up anticipating photographs by Raghu Rai on the front page of The Statesman every morning, “People – His Finest Portraits” comes as a complete shocker, to say the least.

Firstly, imagine the works of this master of the darkroom in a book smaller than an A4-sized sheet folded in half. Thus, you have any number of photographs spread across two pages that completely detract from what is sought to be conveyed. For instance, there’s this photograph of veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar and his family with the protagonist barely visible in the fold.

Then, there’s a photograph of master director Satyajit Ray lying on a bed on a film set with the depth of the image completely lost due to the fold; a darkroom-engineered silhouette of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suffers from the same infirmity and gives the impression of being two photographs juxtaposd together.

A blob in the centre of flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia’s photograph leaves you wondering what it is — till you realise it is the sun on a painting behind the artist; thanks to the fold, environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna’s left arm is sans his hand; art impresarios Rajeev Sethi and Martand Singh flank Pupul Jayakar, who is all but hidden in the fold.

But enough of that.

There’s the choice of locales. What could have been a moving image of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar in a boat on the Ganges, his hair flying in the breeze, gets lost against the backdrops of the ghats in Varanasi — quite apart from the fold. One thinks an image against the river alone would have done him greater justice.

One possible solution could have been to adopt the landscape rather than the portrait format for such photographs. The images, no doubt, would have been smaller but what is sought to be said would have come across much more clearly.

Then, there is the question of cropping. An image of artist Jatin Das at work would have leapt right at you but for the “curious onlookers” on the left who seem more intent on staring at the camera than at the painter.

There is also the choice of subjects. A portrait, by its very definition, is a posed shot of an individual, or a couple or even a group. A crowd shot with B.C. Sanyal being felicitated on turning 100 is certainly not a portrait, even though he is intently staring at the camera.

The book could have done without the photographs of the Gandhi clan. One can understand the inclusion of Indira Gandhi because her images were of the posed variety but those of Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul certainly do not qualify in that category as they were taken at public events. Ditto for Manmohan Singh and, of all people, Arvind Kejriwal. A contemplative politician does not necessarily make for a portrait.

And, there’s the price — Rs 999 is far too exorbitant for a book of this size.

In all this, there is a flip side that could easily get lost.

There is an extremely elegantly set-up image of cricketer Tiger Pataudi, with a cigarette in his hand, and actor-wife Sharmila Tagore standing by an intricately carved table that bears a hookah and an elephant with a howdah. A silver lampshade is also visible while a painting on the wall could be of his father, Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi (I’m open to correction on this one). It makes for a very ethereal scene.

You have megastar Amitabh Bachchan glaring at the camera below a domed roof, flanked by directors Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai staring their own ways — all very dramatic and very filmy.

There’s an image of a contemplative Vikram Seth, the author lying on a bolster, a book in his left hand, gazing up, his right hand on his neck and with a ghost of a smile on his face. Another photograph takes in the entire Seth family of four.

The image of Shobhaa De offers tremendous depth but a crowded painting overshadows the author-columnist, while a photograph of media mogul Aveek Sarkar transports you back to the 19th century.

There’s also a rather charming photograph of Raghu Rai and his daughters Anvi and Purai, when they were very young, gazing into a full length mirror, with the camera barely visible in the photographer’s hand.

The piece de resistance, however, is the cover: A soliloquising Ustad Bismillah Khan, sans his trademark headgear, eyes gently shut, a hint of a smile on his lips, every hair on his head and beard in sharp focus, as is the mole on his right cheek and a delicate silver earring.

This one photograph alone makes up for all the other deficiencies of the book and makes it worth possessing.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

–IANS

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