STILL POINT First City Magazine Art Interviews

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RAM RAHMAN The black and the white and all that marks India: A Dussehra procession in Old Delhi in the Eighties. Painted figures on a billboard - a beefy builder flexing his muscles while three female acrobats applaud the scene, as it were - that towers above a wall of corrugated iron sheet, across which it is notified, ‘Gent’s Urinal’, a Delhi image captured in 1991. Bhupen Khakhar nestled in the lap of a Mahatma Gandhi statue, yet another iconic image that framed 1995. Perspective collapses, each; but, he’ll tell you, the photographer, “I never cease to marvel at people, what they do, how we create the physical world around us. We fill it with all kinds of signs and markers of who we are and what we are thinking. We make our world a theatre set, and we are all actors in it.” Ram Rahman [1955], photographer, designer, curator and cultural activist, graduated with a BSc from MIT and an MFA from the Yale University School of Art. While at MIT, he studied Mughal Painting with Stewart Cary Welch and Gupta Sculpture with Pramod Chandra at Harvard, and photography history under Eugenia Parry Janis at Wellesley. Ram is a founding member of SAHMAT, the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, a community of artists, painters, architects, designers, dancers, musicians, potters, who came together in memory of the playwright and performer Safdar Hashmi after he was murdered in January 1989 while performing a street play in support of a workers’ strike in New Delhi. He has conceived and curated many of their events and exhibitions; his last major exhibition Bioscope, was held at Rabindra Bhavan, in 2008, along with a book of the same name. These FIRST CITY interviews - May 2003, February 2008 - that catch him in the middle of his two major exhibitions, play a major role in telling us why we like that cipher, often mistaken for a still photograph.




HE LAYERED FRAME THAT he has mastered - the melange of stories in a crowd or the unconscious arrangement of irony in an urban landscape or even the mise-en-scene, each thrumming with the subtle absurdities that juxtapositions bring on, as well as the balance - would set the scene, bioscope-like, were one were to step inside the studio-residence on Sham Nath Marg, where photographer, designer and curator, Ram Rahman, lives and works, marvelling at how “a combination assembled by chance becomes an incredible visual text - a record of social and cultural consciousness” - his subject as well as impetus. “I don’t really go out to look for a subject or a certain kind of scene on the streets, or even inside people’s homes. I just react to what is around me, always with wonder, because “I find every second of the day rather fantastic. After all, the world is quite amazing, isn’t it?” he quizzes. “I never cease to marvel at people, what they do, how we create the physical world around us. We fill it with all kinds of signs and markers of who we are and what we are thinking. We make our world a theatre set, and we are all actors in it... to shamelessly evoke Shakespeare ... Since my mother was a dancer [Indrani Rahman], and I danced myself, theatre was what the world was!” He laughs, continuing, “My parents made me realise that creative endeavour is the greatest quality of the human mind and that is the only criteria to judge greatness, it is the one totally positive aspect of the human being ... That’s why in my photographs you see Balasaraswati and a lesser-known Bhavai actor. Both great talents.” The February 2008 conversation plays out around Bioscope, an exhibition culled from three decades of his photography and his self-confessed pleasure in “putting very different pictures next to each other, almost like frames in a comic”. Ram references his viewfinder take on the world, “ I call the show Bioscope because that is how I look at the world. There is an aspect of the magic image box, but here you look out of the box window, not into it! And this is where the idea of documentary gets interesting. I enjoy putting very different pictures next to each other, almost like frames in a comic. The narrative possibilities are open, and the viewer can make their own connections.” Careful to distinguish this impulse from the ‘photo-story’ in photojournalism, he says, “’Any photo becomes a historic document the minute it is taken. I think of the images as words in a sentence.





You can put them together as prose or as poetry and, of course, in interestingly disjointed connects.”

reflective of “you at that point of time. And in many ways, the way you make the pictures reflects the culture of the moment; it is a part of the image.”

A flip through the 200-page catalogue of this exhibition’s images is an experience of this photo-narrative, with Ram having captured in the three decades timeline of these images, an overwhelming range and depth of people, history, culture, aesthetics, the humour and irony of daily life: Old fashioned photo studios and near-extinct film hoarding painters. Dust- bathed wrestlers at Dangal Maidan, Jama Masjid. Celebrity weddings, fancy dress parties, dharnas, green room dynamics at fashion shows. A particularly telling display of assorted poster merchandise by a street vendor. Circus hoardings and Ram Lila processions, surreal backdrops against the circus of daily life. Forgotten cemeteries and sunny lawns, populated by afternoon snoozers and gossips. Srinagar, Leh, Ladakh; the stark beauty of scenery and soft wrinkle creases of inhabitants. Id festivities at Bazaar Chitli Kabar. Images that, inventive yet very much a product of their time, rest in a subset of historical documentation and self expression, the public and the private. “The photograph is both; while it is a document of a piece of the real world, the making of the picture and its placement in a wider context, certainly make it a medium of self-expression,” concurs the photographer, who began experimenting with photography while enrolled for a physics course at MIT and who, after graduating, studied design at Yale, and in 1995, peddled on the streets of Delhi, Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh when the Union Government unofficially banned it. The political context too, exists at many levels: Austere shots of survivors of 1984 riots in Kalyanpuri, Ayodhya in 1993, the Gulf War Victory parade in NY, and the very famous shot of Safdar Hashmi’s funeral, as well as the intimate portraits of the President’s bodyguards, Delhi’s Bhavai actors, a Dali-esque folk performer, as well as the well known faces of photographer Raghubir Singh, Bhupen Khakkar, Habib Tanvir and FN Souza. “I knew that many of the people I grew up with were famous, but I knew them for their talents and their wonderful work. So, many of the people in the pictures are there because they are friends and I have great respect and affection for them. All my portraits have been done with the subjects, with all of whom I had some connect. I feel that most of them reflect something of the person, and usually it is a quality that I find attractive,” he says, while also observing how the impulses, which fuelled each click, were also

The eyes framed within the bold, black parentheses of square glasses, see all around a theatre of the street of sorts, in fact, the title and subject of an exhibition in 2003, about which he’d mused, “Our culture is particularly rich for the photographer who has an eye for the spontaneous and phenomenally layered visual theatre that we seem to create with a throwaway ease. We surround ourselves with images, reflecting a mass visual language tradition much stronger than the written word, perhaps because mass formal literacy is a distant goal. As a photographer, I revel in the manner in which we inscribe our public and private hi stories on the very walls and spaces of our public life.” Shot in streets all over India, he’d documented “public culture”, “Something I’m very interested in” , which is painted signs, images, icons - whether they be religious, political or from cinema - or pop icons, advertising ... Saying that the photographic medium is “ideally suited to notations of this cacophony, with its isolated framing and freezing of the moment - sign posting and recording a people’s commentary - the humour, pathos and irony of street theatre”, he’d tried to explain how a photograph just happens. “It happens by chance; it’s not something which is designed. You find wonderful juxtapositions, especially in India. All the photographs are straight documentary photographs, not fiddled with at all.” In addition to showcasing a series of his photographs, The Theatre of the Street had a cinema hoarding that Ram had manipulated. “I took an actual hoarding of Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman - this was Aadmi - and worked with hoarding painters to alter it. They toned it down; that’s a thing they do when they reuse hoarding material. They paint white paint over the images, so the colours are not vivid anymore.” Gesturing towards an image of Queen Elizabeth II and David Beckham, Ram referenced, “This has actually been done for a show I did in Manchester, in which I had a whole bunch of cutout figures constructed. Some were real though Hrithik Roshan was from Plaza - but the figures of Beckham ... “ Then pointing out a dancing figure I’d been trying to identify, he’d said, “That’s my mother, and there’s also Gandhi, and these were made especially for the work. The Queen of England was painted especially too; she’s the only fully dimensional image on the



hoarding. To subvert the whole visual, the rest have been toned down. The idea of this is that you can stand behind the cutouts and get yourself photographed.” He demonstrated, nipping back the head of his mother’s cutout, “So, it’s a bit of a play of this whole notion of those photo studios, which used to have cutouts with cars. But, I’m doing something that is a little different here - it’s both about personal histories and public histories.” At a solo exhibition of his works at the Manchester Museum of Art in 2002, Ram had people walking in and getting themselves photographed behind his cutouts; among these were the Singh twins. Ram remembers fondly, “They’d just had a show. They were so short, we had to put car tons for them to stand on!” This “flipping head idea” came from one of the photographs he captured, an image of a hoarding that is made of attached wooden boards, one that convinced Ram that, with its trace of the memory of religious and political icons and events and sites of charged meaning, “[a photograph shot on the street in India] is much more complex than in most other cultures around the world. We are in that moment of transition - the handmade sign co-exists with the more sophisticated print and digital poster - and soon we will lose the liveliness of the handcrafted”. Mulling about the images he captures, Ram typifies them as “dense, and there’s complete chaos, but they have all kinds of strange things happening, and some of them are not so obvious”, Indira Gandhi on a sort of enshrined pedestal made by Tazia makers, for instance, “’so the references are even stranger, since the Tazia’s are made for Moharram. To see a picture of Mrs G inside something like that, is very unusual”, Rama with a Hanuman, “part of a tableau that was to be used for Ram Navami, but it was standing there right in front of the Red Fort”, Narasimha Rao cutouts lying flat on a lawn and, a short distance away, two men in Congressmen caps sitting and chatting. Bhagat Singh “that’s actually being painted in Abbas Studios - this is Bobby Deol, so this of course, is not in the street, but in the studio, just before it gets into the street”. Maulana Azad in Connaught Place, with his stomach missing, and an umbrella salesman in the front. Jawaharlal Nehru with Akshay Kumar. The Red Fort, “another kind of icon; this is during the fiftieth anniversary of India’s Independence, August 15, 1997, when they shut the Red Fort”. Two pictures shot in New York: One of a Gandhi march on India Day, with an incredible Gandhi look-alike, “quite an amazing picture - quite Dada - all



these fat fellows with their Congress topis, marching down Madison Avenue”, The other, of an American woman on Madison Avenue selling Indian flags to Indians, “and you have Gandhi again looming in the back”. The tomb of Hazrat Mahal “with a hoarding of cockroaches, in the front”. Atal Bihari Vajpayee - a wall drawing in Kolkata, “and the skeleton is actually the RSS [Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh], holding a coffin that has a United States flag painted on it. The skeleton is saying, ‘You will do what I say’. So, the skeleton is ordering him. An exterior of a photo studio and processing lab, which has Ram observe, “In a way, it’s a kind of history of India – Zail Singh, Bapu Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sam Manekshaw, all the se rvice chiefs, VV Giri, Zakir Hussain, Rajiv Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, Radhakrishnan, and ordinary people too, who went to the studio, because they’re also a part of history.” Such larger connotations however, always balanced perfectly with spontaneous humour and irony, clinching the contradiction that makes a good photograph - a moment of spontaneity, frozen. As if the moving reels of everydayness were passed through the bioscope of the camera and distilled as these still images by Ram. A photographer who, while marvelling at how “we in India are fascinated by images, we are an intensely visual culture, and we approach most still images with a fascinated reverence”, never fails to capture the humour, the idiosyncrasy. He says, “It [humour] comes from within. I think every good photographer’s work imbibes their personality and world view. That comes naturally. My humour is a mild version of my father’s, who was very, very funny and wicked! He loved playing tricks on people. So, it is a genetic inheritance.” The experience of a photo exhibition is summed up by Ram: impulsive, articulate and succinct, “Watching a film is a community experience, it is a performative medium. The photograph is more meditative ... The still photograph is like a cipher. You can keep coming back to it and looking at it again and again. It has the still magical quality of being a record of something which was there. Looking at a picture, years later, evokes nostalgia, shock, wonder, delight or even desire.” May 2003 and February 2008