The first photograph that Nemai Ghosh took of Satyajit Ray shows the maestro rehearsing a shot with the actors, Tapen Chatterjee and Robi Ghosh, for the film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The year was 1968, the setting Birbhum. What stood out in the photograph was not only the perfection of angles. The three men in a huddle (Ghosh has his back to the camera) are seen through a gap between two trees, while another man watches the trio with a pensive look. The patterns visible on the trunks, the density of the foliage that creates a tense, oppressive air, the intensity of the engagement — the director and actors seem oblivious to the surroundings — highlight Ghosh’s control over such technical aspects as precision and detailing as well as his penchant for creating a sense of theatre.
On seeing Ghosh’s first pictures, Ray praised him, “… you have done it exactly the way I would have, man, you have got the same angles!” Thus began a 25-year-old association between the auteur and the photographer during which Ghosh — appointed the stills photographer of Ray’s film unit from 1970 onwards — captured numerous vignettes of the director at work and in moments of leisure. Nemai Ghosh: Satyajit Ray and Beyond (The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Aug 16-31), an exhibition presented by the Delhi Art Gallery and meticulously curated by Pramod Kumar KG, brought together some rare and delightful images from Ghosh’s vast archival inventory of Ray, his films and other iconic moments from Indian cinema.
What is evident from this body of work is not just Ghosh’s mastery over technique, but also his ability to create and dismantle moods with the lightest of touches. A sense of despondency is palpable in Ray on the beach, 1976. The photograph shows Ray staring at the foamy waves, with his hands resting on the back of his head. This moment of resignation, even vulnerability, is magnified by the gathering gloom and the falling light (Ghosh abhors the use of flash).The setting remains unchanged but the mood is decidedly sunny in Ray on the beach (Bala, 1976) in which the director, reclining on the sand and looking slightly away from the camera, seems to have regained his ease and composure.
Equally fluid are the lines that separate reality and fantasy. For instance, the unaffected quality of the two images from Pratidwandi — in one we see Dhritiman Chatterjee and Joysree Roy atop the Tata Centre and in the other the duo are walking back into the building — introduce a teasing confusion in the mind of the viewer, who remains unsure whether the recorded moments belong to real or reel life.
This element of confusion that Ghosh introduces in some of the photographs is perhaps inspired by the madness that informs Ray’s world of art. Here, madness does not imply derangement. But it resonates through the depiction of chaos and disorder — sheafs of papers and books arranged untidily in Ray’s study; cameras, trolleys, or even crowds jostling for space and attention during the shooting of films. The poignancy of the photograph showing the cast and crew of Sonar Kella eating lunch together does not lie only in the celebration of collective bonding (picture), but the unique expression on each of the faces (Kamu Mukherjee remains as inimitable as ever) also conveys a bewildering human drama, lending the image with a kind of mad energy.
Apart from actors’ portraits — including a stunning photograph of Soumitra Chatterjee — the exhibition brings together memorable cinematic moments from films other than those directed by Ray. But it is Ray who dominates Ghosh’s art and imagination. He captures the director in moments of remarkable candour — an aged Ray receiving a peck from a child actor is only one example — that help flesh out the man behind the icon. But most of these photographs document the hypnotic spell that Ray cast on the people around him. We, too, are spellbound by the image of Ray sitting on a trolley, cigarette in hand, an umbrella resting beside him, during a break while filming Asani Sanket.
Ghosh’s photographs are invaluable not only because they serve as a visual narrative that chronicles the journey of Indian cinema. They also mirror photography’s philosophical engagement with, and its failure to illuminate, the mysterious, shifting, lines that ostensibly separate reality from illusion. A still from Seemabaddha shows an actress (Parumita Chowdhury) gazing at an oval mirror. The exchange that takes place in this intensely private moment remains elusive to the photographer, revealing the camera’s limitations as a tool of inquiry into a world made more of shadows than light.