The black-and-white days were very colourful and vivid, not so black and white at all,” says photographer Praveen Jain assertively. “Those were friendly times, with leaders of all descriptions talking easily with each other and also with us too, not like today. The lines were a lot less firmly drawn.”
Jain’s work from 35 years ago was on display last week in the exhibition, “200 & One”, held in Delhi’s AIFACS gallery. The show spans India’s political life from the time of Indira Gandhi in 1983 to Narendra Modi in 2018. His last show, which was inaugurated by former PM VP Singh and then President KR Narayanan, was also held in 2000 in Delhi.
Seen together, Jain’s images widen the aperture dramatically on political life in India and reveal how it has changed over the years. When Jain started wielding his still-camera as a teenager, video (with sound) was not so ubiquitous, chatter and conversation were separate from the image, and the powerful were, therefore, far less wary of shutterbugs. Television was the monopoly of the state broadcaster, and the news was framed and defined in the next day’s newspaper, duly picked from images the news photographer would supply. Victoria Maier, the famous street photographer in the US whose entire work was a secret for many years, said of her profession; “I am a sort of a spy.” That is certainly a tempting definition of the role news photographers play, with their ability to be there and hold the times in a single frame.
Jain’s collection offers glimpses of the numerous persons on the political stage in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, and the access that camerapersons had to them. VP Singh lounges on his sofa in Allahabad, unmindful of the lens. Three former Prime Ministers giggle, with Sonia Gandhi in the foreground; the joke remains a secret. What is certain, says Jain, 51, is that it may never be possible to capture those images now. “The access to the PM’s house, to Parliament, to all leaders is so much more restricted now. In fact, there is no access.”
Jain, associate editor (photo), The Indian Express, is known for his longest association with the newspaper, which he joined in 1995. His previous stints were with Delhi Recorder, Surya India, India Week, Sunday Mail and The Pioneer. Born in Rohtak, he says his hometown still draws him. “I love Rohtak. Even today when anyone says they are going there, I tell them to bring me some of its soil,” he says.
Jain’s photographs tell a story of 11 governments and moments that often resulted in their formation or collapse. He finds these photographs of leaders in a variety of moods and modes most illustrative of how politics has changed and evolved.
There is Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee relishing a gol gappa; CPM leader Somnath Chatterjee and BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi sitting with the Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav; the BSP leader, Mayawati, whispering something to then PM Inder Kumar Gujral; Priyanka Gandhi in her once trademark Kolhapuri chappals climbing into her grandmother’s samadhi from under a fence — the informality and ease of the times cannot but escape the laziest of eyes.
Photographs have always have been a way to project leaders to the world. But increasingly, it has become a way to push, project and control a political narrative — as if, the idea is to ensure that there is no candid moment. When Instagram is used to build political careers, unfettered access to news photographers cannot be allowed to sully a brilliant publicity campaign. “In 1999, after his oath-taking ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan, then President KR Narayanan was walking with the newly sworn-in PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He stopped near the photographer stand and pointed me out to Vajpayee, saying, ‘This is Praveen Jain, he is a dangerous man, look out for him.’”
But that is clearly a thing of the past, as security restrictions, vanity and a “professionalisation” of politics has meant few photographers are allowed to roam free.
The technology has also changed drastically. “Earlier, it was one roll of film, 36 frames, within which we did two or three assignments. We had to conserve and build a frame and not lose a moment either. Unlike now, when just for one assignment, people use 500-600 frames and then choose which one to pick.” Jain speaks nostalgically of a time when “there were dark rooms where we would watch our pictures emerge from the negatives, like expectant mothers, not quite sure what the baby would look like.”
By foregrounding his work on top leaders, Jain has been unjust to his other work, some of which has become crucial evidence spurring courts into giving justice. He recalls hearing that the trial of the Hashimpura killings (1987) not going well for lack of evidence 10 years ago. He went to a fellow journalist with his negatives, wondering if it would be worth his while to contact the lawyers of the victims, gunned down by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC). It was only then that his pictures became a part of the case. They were to prove decisive, but only in the Delhi High Court. They did not appear to have an impact on the trial in the the lower courts. “Nothing hurt and annoyed me as much as the taunting looks from the PAC representatives at the trial once the Tis Hazari Court said they were not sure about the identity of the perpetrators, despite my pictures. But I am so happy that the HC has found them guilty.” He has been a witness to one of the biggest conspiracies of the time, the demolition of the Babri Masjid — Jain recorded rehearsals on the eve of the demolition in 1992. He still visits the courts to stand by what he saw and shot.
Jain carries the weight of history lightly as he remains enthusiastic about making more pictorial memories. But he does admit to missing the iftar party. “I used to wait for it the entire year. It was the Mecca of political photographs. People would mingle with the most unlikely people that day, and we had a free run. Now, there are no iftars, and, consequently, no memories either.”