Some photographs are mandatory in a coffee table book on Rajasthan: those of royalty and palaces, dunes and religious festivals, colourful jewellery of the local communities and the striped king of Ranthambore, and so on. RAJASTHAN: UNDER THE DESERT SKY (Roli, Rs 3,995) — a compilation of images and text by Rajesh Bedi and Gillian Wright, respectively — has all these visual elements, and, mercifully, some more. Where Bedi differs from others who have attempted to capture the desert state through image and word is in his willingness to traverse unfamiliar routes. Bedi has travelled to the heart of the desert, recording the life and journeys of nomads, traced the remnants of forgotten trade routes and marvelled at the architectural brilliance of ancient edifices. Consequently, this body of work is at once a visual archive and an examination of continuity and change in a way of life that remains outside the realm of iconography.
Thematically, many of these photographs remain distinctly unoriginal. Camel traders huddled against the cold in Pushkar, former monarchs caught in a moment of leisure, women marching with water-pots, magnificent forts and temples are common motifs in the visual culture that has been spawned to attract tourists. The saving grace here is the quality of reproduction. Each photograph, reproduced in a large format and accompanied by a caption, heightens the drama of the setting because of its remarkable clarity.
Bedi’s technical prowess is also unquestionable. As pointed out by Wright, many of the pictures have been shot from a hot-air balloon or with the camera tied to a kite. These aerial images provide a breathtaking view of the stunning, limitless landscape, revealing, yet again, the frailty of human enterprise to master nature. But Bedi does not ignore the ingenuity of human agency to survive the harsh terrain. The photograph of a shepherd transferring a mouthful of water to a lamb so as not to waste a drop is quite telling.
Bedi also highlights the fragile state of Rajasthan’s eco-system. The photograph of the denuded tree cover in Sariska is a grim reminder of this threat. Some of his other images — a Bhil woman wearing sunglasses, for instance — also trace the complicated interface between tradition and modernity. There is momentary respite from these troubling questions in the form of depictions of the richness of Rajasthan’s architectural legacy. Bedi’s detailing of the intricate pattern of the Chand Baori stepwell is a case in point.
The accompanying photograph — a charpoy drawn across the entrance of a hut to signal that there is none home — is a wonderful depiction of the simplicity and the beauty that characterize life and rituals in a vast and unforgiving terrain.