The ongoing retrospective of Kulwant Roy’s historic photographs at New Delhi’s, National Gallery of Modern Art flanking Indian Gate, is an example of how valuable photographs have been to the study and understanding of history and our leaders. Such a grand retrospective also brings a sad fact to our attention: how difficulty of access during the post Indira Gandhi era has made political photography during this period so diminished that our history is the more poorer for that.
The warmth, the trust and the camaraderie that photographers like Kulwant Roy enjoyed with all national leaders during the Nehru-Gandhi-Indira era no longer exists due to an all encompassing paranoia. Cut off from the prying eyes of the camera, cocooned in their sanitised environs, seemingly incapable of social interactions, the post-Indira era leaders are just caricatures to us. Effusing no warmth, no humanness, no frailities, no secret joys like that of Roy’s close up shot of Nehru with his hands clasped around Rajiv’s cheeks as he said farewell before he departed to Europe, our memory of the last two decades are of , set -up images. No images tell us of personal agonies, most are just stoccato shots of set-up triumphal moments.
We miss dearly the great photography of the 20th century which helped us get a three dimensional idea of an India that was. Indian history during the British rule and soon after are immensely enriched and embellished by photographs by some of its pioneering practitioners . After the early part of the 20th century when Raja Deen Dayal and other colonial photographers like Samuel Bourne worked, came the period closer to Independence when apart from Roy there was the brilliant Homai Vyarawalla, Sunil Janah and Western news photographers like Margarate Bourke White of Life magazine who captured for us the iconic picture of Gandhi on his spinning wheel or O'Key's picture of a childishly smiling Gandhi in 1945.
Homai, being a lone lady in this difficult art of getting a ringside view of history was like Kulwant much adored by all national leaders and she fondly remembers President Radhakrishnan calling her "princess" and he often introduced her to all world leaders as she stood there coy but determined, her Rolliflex twin lens reflex, always on the ready. When Nehru released a pigeon at the National Stadium her Rolliflex froze the moment for us, just as Roy was present when Gandhi stepped out of a third class compartment at Nizamudin station. In some places photography was banned then as well but Nehru defiantly posed for Homai at Palam airport right in front of a board which said : "Photography strictly prohibited." When Indira Gandhi celebrated the fifth birthday party of Rajiv Gandhi she called Homai to photograph the occasion and then later sent her a thank you letter. When Homai came crashing down from a high stool in front of Jinnah during his last press conference in his Aurangazeb Road residence, he asked her if she hurt herself and wondered how she held on to her camera.
All these pictures brought us closer to the heart of our leaders. We were ringside viewers as history played itself out and that intimacy helped us belong. Those photographs made us participants in a struggle which most of us missed.
"This intimacy with the freedom movement distinguished Roy’s work... he was able to capture its most formidable personalities in their relaxed and unguarded moments. Embedded in Roy’s photos is also an excitement and optimism, a sense that we are witnessing a decisive progressive moment in Indian modernity," writes his nephew and curator of the show Aditya Arya.
What do we have of the post Indira prime ministers or leaders? Anything image that can goad our memory o f VP Singh (hated by the mainstream press) Deva Gowda (totally ignored) or even say Atal Behari Vajpayee? Is there anything to match Raghu Rai’s picture of Indira Gandhi surrounded by a genuflecting semi circle of cabinet ministers in her office, a picture so stark and subtle and full of irony and humour at the same time?
Today millions of Indians have cameras with them, as add-ons to their mobile phones. So the thought of capturing a digital image is sort of top-of-the mind for many of us. Such insta pics can be texted and emailed easily and that adds to the value of such images. In front of a monument, outside a temple, beside a beloved are all default situations for that phone to be used as a camera. These are then talked about, uploaded on Facebook for others to admire ("sooo sweet" ) and in some cases printed .
We all love images. They embellish memory, they exaggerate notion of the self, often stand as a bulwark against time and tide, announce our aspirations aloud and challenge others to replicate such scenarios. Women who consider themselves to be beautiful have various pictures taken of them. Men on the other hand are photographed as achievers, body-builders and stars. This because it is men who have appropriated the task of deciding what and how a certain object should be captured and stored or laminated.
Yet everywhere we go in India photography is banned. In no government office or institution is photography allowed. Warnings are pasted prominently. It suits the babu to prevent such intrusion. There is no explanation offered, though the all encompassing word “security” is mentioned in such situations. Photographers are seen as potential disrupters, working for organizations which can destablise a nation.
Even in public places like Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, video cameras are banned and still cameras are scowled upon or grudgingly allowed. There are elaborate rituals in place for permission to take a picture of some heritage monuments or "sacred places". All this despite the fact that on Google maps you can see anything anywhere in the world. The fear of the photograph is always expressed loudly in India.
Tony clubs like Indian International Centre and India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, where public events are held fall into this bracket. In fact press conferences and hence TV cameras crews are not allowed in the IIC. Big corporate offices also disallow photographers without special permission being granted. No one knows how these rules came into force but clearly these are meant for these institutions to assume a higher calling, a place where important thing happens and powerful people assemble. So intrusive elements and nosey parkers are meant to be kept out.
Why do we fear cameras and images? What happens if a picture or video of , say the interior of Shastri Bhavan in New Delhi , where most ministers have offices sit is published? The Archealogical Survey of India is the biggest scaremonger of all, banning photography in and around many places under its watch. Such widespread paranoia-based banning of photography is seen in societies which has one foot in the modern boat and the other in the medieval, a situation quite typical of India.
"In many countries struggling with failed or discredited attempts to modernise, there are more and more covered women," says writer Susan Sontag in her well known essay on photography. The forced covering up of women, the veiled face in Hindu homes, the burqas in Islamic societies, the nun’s habit etc are meant to show women as docile and serene characters who live according to a particular patriarchal vision of what women should be. Similarly the "covering up" of buildings and monuments and the banning of photography betray a vision of state power and oppression.
In medieval societies and more closely in India during the 19th century, captured rulers and soldiers were blinded. This was also to prevent them from ‘seeing’. This fear of being “seen” is a predominant concern in many societies and shamefully in our so called modern society with its exclusive clubs and offices spread far and wide. In the premises of such offices, the camera is nothing but an intruder who can often show up the truth behind the façade Its ugliness, its paan-spit corridors which are a precursor to the larger filth and dirty secrets hidden in its rooms. So what Sontag said, "One of the tasks of photography is to disclose and shape our sense of the variety of the world. It is not to present ideals," is sought to be prevented by the many written and unwritten bans on photography.