Concluding the Tasveer Journal’s series of posts and articles looking at the 2014 Indian elections, Shilpa Vijayakrishnan takes a look at Raghu Rai’s latest self published book, The Tale of Two: An Outgoing and An Incoming Prime Minister.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
The opening line to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is remarkably well suited to our own present period in India as this last general election has come to a close. The sixteenth Lok Sabha elections were not only the longest, but also the most expensive elections conducted to date – but its defining characteristic was that for the first time in the history of Independent India, prime ministerial candidates were nominated prior to the actual elections, and all campaigning was then essentially centred around these figures.
The Prime Minister in India is the face of the government, the seat of its power, and the mascot of its successes and failures. A comparative look at two people – one on his way out, one on his way in – holding this political office in India is therefore, an interesting entry point into developing an understanding of the complexities of the Indian political sphere. This is the focus of Raghu Rai’s latest offering titled, The Tale of Two: An Outgoing and An Incoming Prime Minister, as clearly stated.
Commenting on his return to political portraiture after over two decades, post his famous body of work on Indira Gandhi, Raghu Rai in an interview with Somak Goshal says, “I had lost interest in photographing politicians after Indira Gandhi’s death. Very few leaders were as strong as her, and also, the circumstances of the work changed remarkably over the years.” He then goes on to detail the changed conditions of access; from a time when it was possible to photograph cabinet discussions up close and cooperating prime ministers to present day scenarios where “photographers were kept several feet away from the leaders by a tight ring of security,” and the need to use powerful lenses in order to discern what was happening in the distance.
The distinction that the privilege of access grants to the political photographer is stark in any comparisons made between Rai’s photographs of Indira Gandhi and the images of Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi in this book; in many ways, the divide between being on the outside looking in and being part of the performative act of being photographed. That being said, there is at the same time, a certain candidness evoked by the latter, taken in moments of ‘being’ rather than ‘posing’. It is this that lends weight to the central play of the book: a contrast between Manmohan Singh’s silence and Narendra Modi’s effervescence.
Divided into two sections, one illustrating a Congress Working Committee meeting and the other a Bharatiya Janata party National Council meeting, that are linked through Rai’s comments on his experiences of shooting both leaders – this book underlines the differences in the public images of, and party positions occupied by, Singh and Modi. Rai uses a time-bound frame to order his images and build a narrative of irony and pathos, signifying the isolation of the ‘accidental prime minister’ in sharp relief to the ebullient force that defines Modi.
The stoic grim expression on Manmohan Singh’s face that barely changes as the clock keeps ticking and the day wears on, is the most arresting, affective bit of the book and the central seed of this project. One is left a little desirous however, that the design of the book further graphically accentuated either its continuity or its contrast with Modi’s dramatic images.
Open ended, with a reproduction of an extract of Modi’s speech at Parliament upon being designated, the book provides no immediate resolution ending with Rai’s promise in response to Modi’s to ‘wait and watch’ as part of a larger national collective of citizens. It may be debatable whether a brief photographic encounter can be used to make larger interpolations on the nature of Indian politics, but as an essay on the disparities between two political leaders and their public personas, this body of work makes a fair argument – one that its photographs make hard to dismiss or ignore.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan