Some years ago, at a discussion around 9/11, Raghu Rai said that without a photograph, history and a page of text would be a brick wall. The photograph provided the window in that wall, bringing life and energy into the wordsmiths’ laborious toils. Rai eloquently argued that “Jaan dene say jaan vapas milta hai” — if one gives of oneself, one gets back something that has spirit, essence: recording a situation is one thing and imbuing it with “an inner spirit, with the feel, the nudge, the lingering smell... I have been a great believer in the power and potency of the single image,” Rai said. The image that flickered across the television screen and was gone in a flash, leaving no memory to hold on to, to touch and to feel, could not hold a candle to the still that had its creator’s life force, mood, energy and power behind it.
It was this belief in the power of the still image that found Rai packing his bags and boarding a flight for Calcutta in August 1971. He found that “the border was not just porous, it was overflowing from all sides”. The village of Bongaon was too small to accommodate the influx, and India was not ready for what was to come. Rai wrote about “the emotional fallout” that “was overwhelmingly painful” — but it was his camera that recorded the unbelievable brutality, the silent pain and the trauma suffered by the people of East Pakistan uncertain of their tenuous future. Bangladesh — The Price of Freedom is a visual documentary of the last months in a tortured land, memorialized on film by the genius of Raghu Rai.
When General Sam Manekshaw ordered the infantry to move into East Pakistan on December 4, 1971, Raghu Rai was in the first column that headed towards Khulna. Soon they were greeted with artillery fire, and when a bullet whizzed past him as he sat at a chai stall, he knew that the Pakistani army was close at hand. Rai and his group were clearly visible and though he took photographs of wounded soldiers, he asked, “How many such photographs could I possibly take? The next set of victims could be us.” That Raghu Rai wasn’t a victim and took some amazing photographs is more than evident in this collection of 70-odd black and white images.
The visuals tell many stories of survival and of death. The introduction by Shahidul Alam, the outstanding Bangladeshi chemist-turned-photographer narrates yet another — that of the discovery of these images and their survival. When, in 1986, he met Rai on a “junk headed for Kowloon”, it marked the beginning of a warm relationship. Though Alam was “somewhat in awe of the great Indian photographer”, he was disarmed in no time by Rai’s inimitable camaraderie. And, when in around 2010, he got a call from Rai to say that the negatives of 39 years ago had been found, Alam knew that a unique visual history of his country’s past was at hand. In the years between, there had been intense curatorial attempts at recovering whatever material remained of the many telling and re-tellings of the months between March 26, when the Pakistan army launched its Operation Searchlight, and December 16, 1971, the day of liberation. World interest had been galvanized not only through the Blood Telegrams in which the American consul general in Dhaka and 29 other Americans issued a statement to “register strong dissent with fundamental aspects” of American policy that “failed to denounce atrocities” but also by the music and lyrics of Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, George Harrison, Allen Ginsberg and others.
While Bangladeshi photographers were “too vulnerable to make their work public”, some sent their films out of the country in the hopes that they would become a part of the growing discourse around the people’s struggle. Although at the time, their expectations were misplaced, images were to find a growing space many years later: as Alam and others started compiling the work that still survived, they found “scarred negatives, hidden from the military, wrapped in old cloth, buried underground, also bore the scars of war”. When the PDF file arrived with Rai’s images, Alam writes of the sheer exhilaration tinged with unmistakable pain as he looked at the work of “a master storyteller with all the dexterity of an African griot”. The stories were no longer new — they been told many times over, in many differing registers of suffering and loss: refugee camps, homes in sewers and the eyes — of the dead, the dying and of those who lived on in an eternal limbo. Though the present collection does have images of triumph — of Generals Aurora and Jacob, of Niazi and the instrument of surrender, it is a story of homelessness, of the interminable trek into India — and of the Indian army. Rai’s photographs of the army are sympathetic. An injured man looks up at the jawans surrounding him. Is he a Pakistani or a Bangladeshi? In another, a tank rolls by watched by jawans. Someone looks through the binoculars while a finger points at the same view from behind. Field guns are loaded and moved and at dusk, the roll of lorries with men at the ready. The Mukti Bahini is missing — but Indira Gandhi is not.
In those traumatic months, ten million people fled their homes. Memories of collective suffering needed the spirit of the photographer to preserve “the lingering smell”. And it is in his almost panoramic shots where little appears to be edited out that Raghu Rai asks the viewer to share in the mises en scene. A destroyed railway bridge with the signals intact provide the backdrop for an army jawan being ferried across by a Bangladeshi majhi. Bloated bodies in a water course. Scrawny children silhouetted as though in a tribal painting watch a group of women cooking. In a single frame, a bent old woman leans heavily on a staff and behind her, an elderly man turns back, his scrawny leg clearly visible. A black mongrel with sad eyes looks on. It is a moment when the viewer cannot tell whether any of the three are moving; or are they waiting? In another horizontal frame, the sinews and pursed lips of the young man who carries perhaps his mother in a sling-like basket, speak of motion. The woman’s eyes as well as those of the man who holds the other end of the pole are suspicious, interrogative. Like most other ‘victims’ of disaster photography, they had little option in deciding whether they should or should not be photographed. Yet they did not give up the right to silently question.
Another old woman stirs an open cauldron with some vigour, her brow furrowed, the odd muscle rippling through her emaciated arm. She is watched by other hume-pipe inhabitants. Or are they watching Raghu Rai behind the camera? Most poignant are the mother and child images that remind one of Sunil Janah’s similar portrayals during the famine of 1943. The women are gaunt, hauntingly beautiful in their pathos — and some make easy eye contact with the lens. Others are too devastated to care. In a wizened face, eyes reflect another life. In another, there is nothing but mist. Tears, screams, stifled groans push aside the hundreds climbing on to buses. Long shots capture the dying and in the background those who lived on. Rape is the dominant trope, marking bodies, faces and eyes. A brilliant juxtaposition that brings to an end the story of the war is that of an injured man surrounded by jawans — and on the facing page, the mask-like face of a woman against a dark backdrop. Her full lips are parched dry, and her almond eyes, expressionless. The light reflects off her well-shaped nose and highlights the furrows in her mouth. There are no tears.
When Raghu Rai returned to Delhi and was looking through the images with his three-year-old son, the child asked him, “Why?” He looked pained as clearly many of the visuals had disturbed his impressionable mind. Should he have been protected from what his father had by now internalized? Perhaps — but that question is not germane here. A war, the birth of a nation and a people’s anguish had been recorded by one who knew exactly what needed to be seen. Documenters of war and destruction are perhaps the most searing judges of those who make holocausts and human suffering their business. As for ‘objective’ viewers, it is never too late to be privy to such imagery, valorized through sensitive archiving and preservation.