The irony of bronze Posture of Gandhi

16 Feb, 2008, 0400 hrs IST,Uma Nair, TNN

To catch the spirit of a mood-artist Bhupen Khakar sits in the lap of Mahatma Gandhi. Dwarfed by the monumentally ugly work,it is a telling tale of spontaneity and didactic discourse. An obnoxious bronze statue of Gandhi became the backdrop of a bemused Bhupen Khakar.

The irony of the statue going against the very principles that Bapu stood for is perhaps the perfect personification of Ram Rehman's penchant for probing the limpid lucidity of underlying wit in day to day living.

Historic in proportion and perspective , Ram’s solo show at Rabindra Bhavan(the space designed by his architect father Habib Rehman) is a lesson in learning.

In an age of brazen often brandied about photography shows in the capital city which don’t even remotely mirror the sub text of artistic discourse,this solo showing of black and white and coloured splendour is a cocktail of the quaint and the curious. Images that are a study in melting evanescent grays,passionate portraits of contemporary Indian artists, some images that have a potent political echo, this show is deliciously far from being a mannered postmodern affectation.

A somber, deep-in-thought Manmohan Singh with Sitaram Yechury by his side, a host of poster and print images of Indira Gandhi, street scenes that loosely narrate the ethos of myth, mood and magic, this is a collection of lustrous and tonally rich prints that exude an aura of technical virtuosity and vitality. Ram’s use of early photographic techniques captures this sense of the moment in ways that later technology will never be able to.

Artists before the boom

He has a camera that depicts near and far with equal precision. And with an implacable clarity. There’s no place left to hide. A host of Indian artists become Ram’s subjects. But these are not artificially posed for studio shots, neither were they taken to become a selling point of a masquerading market. These were tensile tactile moments of serendipity. No probing eyes, no titillating ‘look at me, I am the subject’ takes. Just frank and forthright candidness. No excesses,no trimmings.

Take Tyeb Mehta in a rare moment of smiling fervour with his wife Sakina at an art inauguration in New York; a pensive Devyani Krishna sitting in front of her brilliant offerings just before she died, maverick Francis Newton Souza in New York in 1998, again in a mood of robust mischieveous zest. Then there is Husain painting the horse in front of Art Today in1994. That was a red letter day in art history in Delhi — a day when M.F. Husain and Madhuri Dixit made an appearance together —when the shutterbugs at Art Today got so excited, they fought like goons and had to be thrown out lock stock and barrel.

Natural and stoic at its most elemental best, it is Ram’s honest treatment that inspires a soulful awe in the artists as subjects. A rare foursome are Anita Dubey, Rumanna Husain, Ayesha Abraham and Ratna Bhushan in 1997 in Delhi. Unlike a series of shots that appeared recently of artists appearing more like candy-coloured consumer floss, dressed up and posing, these are unmediated and unmanipulated images. Artists don’t appear as modelling mannequins, but are admirable, real and powerful in their unstudied abandoned moments. They engage in light and legendary gestures, such as even interior guru Rajeev Sethi at the William Bissel Bharath Party .

Iconic imagery

Ram’s images depend upon an innocent, magical quality.Among the many images of Indira Gandhi, it is one image of her photo enshrined as a temple that entices. The images of even a humble peanut seller or autorickshaw driver seem to search out the actual touch of the world — life itself, not just the image and that is what gives the portraits an iconic edge. That hoarding, or even the fringe dwellers like the hijra —dressed as a bride while spectral-looking and sadly despondent — is also startlingly stirring.

A ghost-like veil of reality sifts through this show, some images may even seem as if they were made of vague vapours. The same is true of painful memories — like that of the ailing Kaifi Azmi as Subha Mudgal sings out a soothing raga. The images of the underwear-clad wrestlers at Neemrana seize the body no less than the mind, even as they stand in all their limbed glory.

The success of the black and whites lie in their starkness — the pictures are large, softly luminous and composed with an eye attuned to the light of expression as well as to the fact of flesh. The image of Atal Behari Vajpayee in a cartooned caricature comes disturbingly to life. It can halt as well as haunt your present.

This is a show that deals with a peopled terrain. They’re all present, looking as if they might suddenly say something to the viewer. Whatever the subject animate or inanimate, each shot has a pungent immediacy to it. Ram emerges as a lively, open-minded explorer of the human visage, both technically and artistically — one who takes advantage of whatever the ambience could offer.

In sensibility and in substance this show points to two implicit companions in the world of photography. History and memory. It is said that human memory can never fully recover what’s lost to time. If photographs enrich the past, they also embody and symbolise its poignant losses. In a natural narrative of an enriched documentation, history and memory weave in through this show to give us a subliminal sense of touch — to the naked, stand-alone photograph. If Indira Gandhi’s portrait can be a public altar to the past then something as simple as a clay cow being milked can be poignant and soulful. This show oscillates like a pendulum, between the past and the present. It is designed to hold onto the details of the past in all respects.

Ram takes us deeper into his psyche and sharpens, sometimes poignantly, our understanding of his gift of capturing life as it is. We get privileged glimpses of reverie,regrets, hard-earned wisdom and evocations of primal feelings. One way or another, his early works are, by definition, fascinating.
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