At Delhi’s Rafi Marg, the basement gallery in the AIFACS (All India Fine Arts & Craft Society) building is uncharacteristically humming with visitors. Amid the bustle, photographer Praveen Jain adjusts his glasses and points to two photographs that he clicked, a year apart.
“I waited for my moment, almost a year, to click the same photograph at the same location. Sometimes there is a story behind the story,” he says. Mostly, such moments arrive without warning, he admits. “A photographer never knows when he has become part of history,” Jain adds. The exhibition 200 & one, showcases just how closely Jain has been on the trail of Indian history over the last 35 years and in particular, those who have shaped it – the politicians.
Jain began photographing professionally in 1981, for the Delhi Recorder. He went on to work with The Sunday Mail and the The Pioneer when it was headed by the late Vinod Mehta.
“He gave me a lot of freedom. Supportive editors were crucial. We worked under severe pressure, having 36 unit reels and had to make sure we executed at least 3 events with each. The margin for error was minimal. I don’t think journalists today feel that kind of pressure, nor are they similarly engaged with the profession. The stakes have lowered,” he says.
Jain has captured India’s politicians in uniquely candid situations, be it on stage, in the lawns of their homes or having polite ear-to-ear chats in the corridors of power. His eye for moments where hard politicians come across as soft and vulnerable stand out, and so does the way he talks about them with affecting impreciseness; as if he sees them as no different from the average citizen, reflective in his work as well.
Though Jain is a self-taught photographer and began by clicking ‘dogs and cats on the streets’ to put some money together, his breakthrough moment — also one that changed him as a person — came with the Hashimpura massacre in 1987.
“I still hear those voices in my head. Once I had witnessed such an atrocity, nothing seemed more important to me than justice. I’ve been threatened every which way and instructed to pull my work, but I’ve never thought about it. All I could think was that people should get justice. It has taken 28 years, but at least it happened,” he says.
Jain hid in the bushes to click photos during the murders, while several Muslim men were unlawfully executed in Hashimpura mohalla near Meerut.
That Jain became part of history so early in his career hasn’t prevented him from treating politics at face value. “It’s all very dirty,” he says pointing to a photo of a monkey inside the Parliament house — a metaphor for modern polity and its apathy.
After Hashimpura, Jain was again at the heart of a storm in Ayodhya. His photographs of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and of the inexplicably calm stupor of politicians that masterminded the event come across as profoundly disturbing — an almost prickly ease stamped across faces. But for someone who has witnessed so much churn, moments that were more torn than they were tied together Jain’s sense of context is charmingly wider, even jovial at times.
“Sometimes you just don’t know what might become of your work. You might be clicking something ordinary something that doesn’t stand out but with time, it can become big, maybe pivotal to a lot of things,” he says. Pointing to a photograph of Rabri Devi in her years before she became a politician, he says, "I clicked Lalu and Rabri back when they weren’t big names. I could never have predicted that they would become the powerhouses they did.”
In Jain’s photographs, more than the political backdrop, humanity feels pre-eminent. Manmohan Singh, for example, cuts an incredibly solemn figure, PV Narsimha Rao an achingly old one, and the Gandhi family is a near narrative of life and death across frames. Vajpayee, whom Jain had personal access to, is almost spread across time and photos like a membrane of calmness, almost like a poetic pause amid the fury of political turnovers.
In a photo from 1996, he is seen seated in his room, watching the election results declare him a loser, with the kind of aplomb now feels rare. “The politician of yesteryear allowed more access. But it wasn’t as if they weren’t worried about how they’ll be seen. While some offered me close access, some shunned me, almost felt violated by my work. I troubled them, but perhaps that is the point of this job,” Jain says.
The new-age politician is self-aware, a self-marketer and courts partisan cameras like honey courts bees. Has the nature of the job, then, changed?
“It has. It has become impersonal. A photographer just cannot get access to politicians like we used to and probably isn’t that bothered either. There is no relationship anymore, just the option to click unlimited photos. It is unfortunate the way the very business of the image has been diluted. Even that tension, the limits we worked with breathed life into our work,” Jain says.
That said, his photographs transcend time and will continue to do so even after he puts away his lens.
From Praveen Jain's collection (captions above images):
Congress leader Madhav Rao Scindia watches Sonia Gandhi paying homage to Indira Gandhi at Shakti Sthal.