Beyond palaces and beggars
It was a rare Delhi occasion. On 21 January, two iconic photographers sat together on a stage in Bikaner House. Those not present in the hall would do well to pore over the new books of these two masters—Steve McCurry’s India and Raghu Rai’s Picturing Time.
Both these hard-bounds celebrate the work of several decades. They also contain a handful of powerful images that have played a role in shaping the imagination of a timeless India in the eyes of the world.
The photographs in Picturing Time include sights that are all too rare now, such as a 1966 image of farmers threshing wheat behind Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. A more recent photograph, dated 2010, is captioned “Desert woman, flawlessly colourful and beautiful”.
McCurry’s India has equally stirring images: a boy with a snake, a beggar girl pressing against a car window, a man wading into the Yamuna river in Agra that burns with the clear reflection of the Taj Mahal.
The images in these two books are some of the most inspiring contemporary documents of a spectacular cultural and geographic landscape, feeding the idea that no other place is as exciting for a photographer as India.
Even so, late last year, a different sort of photography book on India was published. There is no Rajasthan, no Varanasi, no monsoon, no turmeric powder and no Taj. The Palaces Of Memory is a rare coffee-table book that fleetingly captures the modernizing rhythms of life in Indian cities. Focusing on the Indian Coffee House chain spread across the country, the book, by the award-winning London-based photographer Stuart Freedman, is the distillation of years of visits to these rundown establishments that are loved by the local people as much for their low prices as for their strong individual character.
Turn over the pages and you’ll see familiar situations, the kind that pile up day after day on our Instagram accounts. Yes, the people in the book could be us: An impeccably dressed man in a suit reading a Hindi daily, a crowd of those so-ordinary glass tumblers, a plate smeared with tomato ketchup, a young woman in a salwar-kameez with a leather handbag on her lap, an A4 sheet pasted on a door with the words: “Badam Milk: Hot Cold”.
Whereas the great photographs of Rai, 74, and McCurry, 66, appear to settle for nothing less than the entire human experience of India, Freedman’s images show scenes that are at once nondescript and compelling. It is their very commonplace-ness that draws us to them and makes us see those familiar scenes in a new light.
In an email interview, Freedman, 49, writes: “With my new book, I consciously sought not to view India through the usual ciphers of poverty or exotica. I’ve been a regular customer in the (Indian Coffee House) branch in New Delhi for as long as I’ve been working (and sometimes living) there—almost 20 years—and saw it as entirely analogous to the greasy spoon cafés of my youth in east London. It was an almost translational device for a young journalist and it allowed me to see the similarity between the people in India and the UK, and not their exoticized ‘otherness’. … The Coffee Houses are as much a part of my India as buying my groceries from INA market or jumping into an auto.”
When it comes to the representation of India by both Indian and foreign photographers, Freedman terms it romantic, rosy and touristy. In journalism too, he adds, Indian photographers often seek to capture those traditional elements of exotica—poverty, prostitution, etc.—in a certain way, partly because that’s what they think the Western media wants to see, and partly because they are working in a Western, post-war documentary/journalistic tradition.
Nevertheless, as Freedman too admits, photographers such as Sohrab Hura, Bharat Sikka and Gauri Gill are pursuing their own understanding of India. Another important name is that of Dayanita Singh, whose book Museum Of Chance was recently picked by The New York Times as among “The Best Photo Books of 2015”.
“It’s no good doing what I have already done,” says Rai at his Delhi office. In October, at the Delhi Photo Festival, he launched Creative Image, a photography magazine. Its newest issue includes black and white photographs by fashion designer J.J. Valaya and cellphone pictures by photographer Amit Mehra. Looking back at his iconic works, Rai says: “Creative expression must come from the gut. It might get inspired by others, but it should take off from those reference points. I’ll become a cliché if I repeat myself. One has to break the mindset of Raghu Rai. I struggle daily with myself in going beyond Raghu Rai. Who is Raghu Rai?”
Meanwhile, a privately published book showcasing the domestic intimacy of middle-class life in India has appeared. Modestly titled The Album: Family & Friends, it is by Raghu Rai.