Ram Rahman's photographs explore the theatrics of life

Ram Rahman says he has been lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Not because he has sought to freeze the `moment', framed in perfect compositions and shades of black and white. But because visual culture almost came to him as an inheritance.So when he speaks of the history of photography in India, it's only natural that it should be illustrated with pictures that are as much a record of the art form in the country as that of his illustrious family.Addressing a gathering of photojournalists, art connoisseurs and intellectuals at the Distil, Taj Connemara, the documentary photographer spoke of Sunil Janah, who Rahman believes is one of India's most important photographers, and whose brilliant works he hopes to be able to compile in a book soon. In the 1940s, Janah, a young Communist Party "courier boy", had the luck of being at the right place at the right time, says Rahman. At the right angle to catch Gandhiji and Jinnah in good humour, to capture Subhash Chandra Bose, and later on, a pensive Nehru and Indira Gandhi with her stark eyebrows threatening to lift cynically. In the right place to accompany Life reporter Margaret Bourke-White in the 1940s. Today, Janah's coverage of the Bengal Famine may be lost in the mountain of the famous images of disaster and poverty piled up over the years. But the picture of a dog at the patches of crusty skin still hanging on a human skeleton, shot when Janah was only in his late teens, is still as gut-wrenchingly honest as it surely must have been then. Then there were dance photographs that Janah did of Rahman's grandmother, Ragini Devi, and mother, legendary dancer Indrani Rahman. And then architectural pictures that Rahman's father had taken of his own buildings. With exposure like that, Rahman didn't ever have to go too far to take his pictures. "I always took pictures of life around me. In fact, when I realised that that is what I was doing, I liked it." As he says, there is the public and the private. In the private, there are fascinating portraits of political leaders, fellow photographers and artistes like Shubha Mudgal sitting on the ground singing to an ailing Kaifi Azmi on a bed next to her. And then there is the public. When a crazy gang of journalists and cameramen seek out what M. F. Husain's brush will create on the belly of a horse, Rahman places himself on the other side, and gets a funny-beautiful image with Husain's head peeping from behind the horse's flank. It's a surreal juxtaposition of a curvy, white space holding the frenzied human kind at bay. It's often the theatrics of life that Rahman captures. The images of graceful lungi clad men as if reflected off film posters. There's also documentary work, like the rare portrait of a young Malana mother. The hill community that considers itself of Greek descent is believed to be averse to the camera. "This woman asked me to take her picture. I was scared, given the fact that it was a Malana, she was a woman and breast feeding her child, but she asked me to take her picture." Or the colour picture of Delhi's high society languidly sprawled on the lawns, celebrating a "colour coordinated marriage" that will remind one of Monet's "Picnic". It's this tongue-in-cheek humour, like finding an announcement of four alleged terrorists, and a call to free the country of terrorism, slapped over Gandhiji's face, that makes this exhibition so much more interesting. The exhibition is on till June 24, at Apparao Infinity Gallery, Taj Connemara. MEERA MOHANTY