The Harrington Street Arts Centre recently presented a collection of Raghu Rai’s photographs of some of India’s iconic musicians (India’s Great Masters, ended on Dec 22). This body of work — Rai started working on it since the early 1980s — includes images of such artists as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva, Kishori Amonkar, Mallikarjun Mansur, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Allah Rakha, Zakhir Husain, S. Balachander and Hariprasad Chaurasia. The chosen venues — concerts, classes and private spaces — are as varied as the artists and their moods.
Rai’s masterly control over several aspects of photography is evident in a number of these photographs. For instance, the manner in which Rai captures the creases of the chaddar worn by Mansur is not only an example of exquisite detailing, but is also an instance of Rai’s own artistry because the creases on the cloth seem to mirror the furrows on the maestro’s forehead. What Rai hints at subtly in this image is also the tension between the camera and the subject. The slight tilt of the head and the unsure smile reveal Mansur’s unease with a rare precision. In some of the other images, Rai also experiments with angles dexterously, so as not to replicate the hackneyed strategy of photographing musicians in frontal shots that somehow end up suggesting that a musician is bigger than the music.
Significantly, Rai also portrays the rigours associated with the genre of classical music. In one photograph, we are shown a knot of bony fingers with lacerated skin, a testimony to the hours of practice necessary to achieve perfection. But the effect of such a depiction of toil is never melodramatic; it only evokes a sense of wonder and respect.There is also a deliberate attempt to liberate these men of flesh and blood from the burden of reverence. Rai achieves this through portrayals of their joyous moods. Bismillah Khan is seen smoking with his feet up, his face lit up with a smile; in another frame, we see him snuggling up to his grandson — these are wonderful representations of spontaneity.
Rai’s reverence for and understanding of music make him depict these musicians as residents of another universe. The trance-like quality of Kishori Amonkar in a performance perfectly captures this distance that forever separates the artist from his or her audience. But the inclusion of a photograph of Chaurasia playing the flute by the sea under an easel sky — an image so dramatic that it appears to intrude upon the understated theme of the exhibition — comes as a disappointment.