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Light, shade and rain

Ace photographer Victor George was chasing his pet obsession, the monsoon, when he was buried alive by a landslide caused by the torrential rains in July 2002. NIRMALA ARAVIND remembers a man who looked at the world through his camera.

THE monsoon has come again to Kerala. Last year, among the many whose lives the torrential rains swept away was one who loved the rain. A man who had set his heart on capturing the monsoon from its advent with heavy, moisture laden clouds, through it riotous passage over hill and valley through endless days of howling wind and rain, till its reluctant farewell.

This was Victor George, ace lensman of the Malayala Manorama. Victor set out from Kottayam, on July 9, 2002, to cover a landslide that had claimed three lives near Thodupuzha in Idukki district. That afternoon, the torrential rains unleashed a second landslide. Cameramen and reporters, who had gathered on the slopes of Venniyani Mala, ran for their lives. But Victor lingered, unmindful of the rocks hurtling down or the shouts of his colleagues, his camera focussed on the diabolic beauty. In a flash, he had disappeared — lost in the rushing water and avalanche of rocks that tore down the hillside.

For two days, they scoured Venniyani Mala, while people all over Kerala watched, hoped and prayed. The third day, a friend saw fingers raised above the mud, a hundred metres below the landslide. Army men and villagers gently retrieved the body, the broken strap of the camera coiled around the neck.

For Victor, there was drama in the ordinary and the everyday, not just in events making headlines. His acute eye could frame a riveting picture from an elderly pavement dweller's defeated face or an excited crowd at a village football tournament. He found as much lyricism in a group of crows perched on a bridge in the rain as the gazelle-like stride of P.T. Usha burning up the tracks.

Born on April 10, 1955, it was his brother who introduced him to photography. What began as a hobby developed into a serious interest. In 1981 Victor joined the Malayala Manorama. From 1985 to 1990 he worked in their Delhi bureau. His pictures of the 1986 National Games first won him recognition. The captivating shots of the plump, animated mother of swimmers Anita and Kavita Sood cheering them from the gallery during the women's 400 metre freestyle brought Victor a clutch of awards and instant recognition, as did his frame of the Indian relay team dropping the baton in a disastrous finish at the South Asian Federation Games, Kolkata in 1989. From 1990, Victor was chief photographer of the Manorama, Kottayam. Readers knew that if a picture was remarkable in its depth, unusual in its theme and told a story in black and white, chances were that it would carry Victor's by-line. Victor was never satisfied with an ordinary angle. When he went to Kottayam District Hospital to take the picture of a boy in the last throes of rabies, the shot he took was of the helpless child clutching his father's hand, capturing the poignancy of the situation by showing only the face of the child and the protective hand of the father.

Victor's smile and understanding manner instantly put people at ease when making a portrait. He was persuasive without making the subject realise that he or she was being effortlessly manipulated into the pose the camera required.

His gallery of portraits of poets, artists and authors for the literary magazine Bhashaposhini is a tribute to this unfailing ability to strike a chord with his subject.

After an extended stint in Kottayam, Victor began to chafe at the confines of news photography and the monotony of covering local events.

The best of his later work in his nature photography, particularly the thought-provoking shots of the ravaged environment and man's destructive greed. His restless mind teemed with ideas for theme books, on life an the backwaters of Kuttanad, on the hoary river, the Bharathapuzha, on wildlife (he was fascinated with snakes), a picturisation of O.V. Vijayan's classic Khazakinte Ithihasam. But to start with he decided he would capture the monsoon — the Kerala monsoon.

Never satisfied ordinary angle ... Victor George and his works.

For two years Victor had been working on his "rain book". He travelled to Kanyakumari and Kovalam and the Shankhumukham seashore of Thiruvananthapuram, waiting for days on end to capture the onset of the monsoon. He sought the beaches of Alappuzha to capture the fury of the torrent, and the hills of Munnar and Nelliampathy for silken, moody rain and mist.

It became an obsession. Friends recall his plan to take a unique photograph of a priest conducting pooja from a boat at the Ayyappan temple in Idukki that is submerged in the monsoon and his excited description of a "number forty rain," so called by the locals to describe the fine, delicate strands of rain. The fairy of the monsoon in the High Ranges that unleashed landslides and floods fascinated him.

When his colleagues opened his desk after July 9, they found a well-thumbed copy of a book Alexander Frater's ode to the rain, Chasing the Monsoon.

* * *

To an admirer of Victor, the news of an exhibition of his photographs at Kottayam could only be greeted with exhilaration. I went on the last day, sure of uninterrupted viewing. But at the town hall, an endless queue of people was shuffling down the rows of tastefully mounted prints — many had obviously come from afar to see these intense pictures.

I joined the queue and looked at Victor's work — wily politicians, gifted athletes, shy young women, ravaged widows, guileless children, the doomed boy in the rabies ward, irate policemen blowing their whistles at the end of the last campaign before a poll, P.T. Usha reflected in a pool of water, the serenity of a quiet river landing in the monsoon...

It was a remarkably silent crowd, intent on absorbing the stories that each frame told. People lingered before the final shot from the camera retrieved after the landslide. It had an ominous quality — that scene of the cracked earth in the downpour, waiting to swallow the unwary spectator.

A knot of people was gathered around a table near the entrance and I waited my turn. It was Victor's book of rain photographs, with a fine tribute by Paul Liebhardt of the Brooks Institute of Photography, California, a collection that was incomplete as Victor's odyssey with the monsoon was cut short.

For me, one picture said it all. It was featured in the exhibition with the title "Sneham". An elderly couple in traditional white, stepping cautiously through the wet undergrowth of a rubber plantation, holding umbrellas, their backs turned to the camera as the old man solicitously guides his wife over the slush with one hand. Such an ordinary, humdrum sight, and yet the master's eye could discern in it the unspoken devotion of a lifetime.

If destiny had willed otherwise on that fateful Monday, Victor would still have been chasing the rain, in tireless pursuit of the monsoon's elusive splendours. But the monsoon is part magic and part madness.

And, when he stood entranced in the eye of the storm, he did not think that the deluge would close over him.

In spite of the pictures he could not take, this is Victor's dream come true and there could not be a more evocative title for a book that has the gentle allure of night rain falling softly. "It's Raining... "

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