Varanasi: Portrait of a Civilization, published by Harper Collins, is a book made of images culled from three decades of Rai’s work in Varanasi. Tracing his movement from black-and-white analogue to digital colour photography, it captures the changes that photography as a medium has undergone, the shifts in Rai’s palette and style over the years, and also significantly the changing-and-yet-unchanging nature of Varanasi as a city.
“Photographs are not about telling stories, but about capturing energies; about recreating the inner experience of any given situation”, Rai states in his introduction to the book; a working process for Rai whose vision is shaped by this need to condense currents of moments in a frame. This translates into his photographs that are charged by the finding of the extraordinary in the ordinary, in as much as they reframe the unfamiliar within the known.
Varanasi as an old city, weighed by myth, religious and historical significance, has always been associated with the idea of timelessness. “The prayers, the pilgrims chant as they walk its sacred streets, and the hope of redemption they bring with them, are the same as they were hundreds of years ago”, expounds the short note on the Magnum site that carries Rai’s Varanasi work. And yet, changes in the structure and fabric of the city are manifested in these images, in as much as they are inevitable in the course of time.
On the one hand, Rai’s photographs are exemplary of the manner in which Varanasi is (and has been unceasingly) visualised over centuries. The Ghats, the funeral pyres, the ash-smeared Aghori babas and the tiny back streets of the city – the most commonly photographed idea of Benares finds expression in Rai’s own visual syntax; but these are punctuated with images that capture billboards, autos piled with children and streets thronged with crowds – a more recent and modern cityscape of Varanasi.
On the one hand, this contrast heightens the affect of both kinds of images on the viewer, producing narratives of both the ‘exotic’ and the everyday; on the other hand, together they highlight the marriage of the secular and the religious, the divine and the profane and the myriad experiences that Varanasi has to offer to a visitor.
This multilayered approach produces a Varanasi that is more complex and real, invested as it is, in the human figures that move beyond populating a city, to comprising it. On the occasion of the book’s release, Rai espoused that for him, these pictures “give a thousand names to the faceless people of Benaras…My faith lies not in the temples and mosques; it comes from the eyes of people I click.”
A significantly remarkable thing about Rai’s photographs of Varanasi, is the consistency of visual form – modes of framing and composition – that carry, over time. From his early work in 1975 onwards, Rai maintains a commitment to producing a certain affect through the juxtaposition of bodies in space, reminiscent in artistic sensibility of somebody like Martin Parr.
A receding depth that is almost painterly in its appreciation of the planes of foreground, centre and background seems to be a hallmark of Rai’s photographs that also deal with great expanse – multiple large scale double page panoramic features for instance – and display an array of human gestures and rhythms. Rai who writes of his desire to “capture everything” seems to use both perspectival depth and flattened expanses as devices, to in fact in a single photograph, underline the multiplicity (and simultaneity) of narratives that determine the impression of place.
He thus, evokes a universe where human figures in a variety of attitudes, carrying a wide range of expressions, in a series of poses and gestures, all reside within a single image, producing for the spectator an interpretative world not bound by a singular ‘decisive moment’ but reveling in the plurality of moments, and the meanings they generate.
In the year 2002, Rai who was shooting for Geomagazine in Mumbai had spent all of his film rolls and decided to use a digital camera to cover any remaining opportunities. Since then there has been no looking back and alongside readily embraced digital technology, Rai has also proven to be one of its staunchest supporters. In an interview with Juanita Kakoty for the Deccan Herald, Rai expounds “With the arrival of digital technology, I am reborn. It gives one much better quality than the film; and also allows greater control and freedom. For instance, one can shoot in the middle of the night and still produce natural colours with the help of Photoshop…I started taking pictures in 1965. We were shooting negatives then; and when colour came, we were shooting transparencies and negatives. But many of these did not see the light of the day. Now, I am taking out old transparencies and negatives, which have the ability to stay alive in today’s mind, and getting them scanned…Such is the magic of digital technology.”
And while the photographs featured here offer us a way into looking at the manner in which surfaces and textures change with this shift from analogue to digital, the reverberating affect of these images comes from a distinct vision that threads them together and that Raghu Rai poetically elucidates upon in the same interview. In discussing how he feels about photography, he observes, “I am like a little boy then, not interested in anything else but to connect, inhale and grab. Like the moments when I dance and sing on the streets. Just like that.”
He connects, inhales and grabs, more than most people see; freeze-framing it, in order that we as viewers, reading his photographs in leisure, may unpack their polymorphic truths. As we dig for fresh layers of meanings in these pictorial puzzles, we comprehend the multitudinous sides of a city – and Varanasi, most significantly of all, as it lies in the midst of life and death, spiritual intensity and bovine indifference.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan