Sepia-tinted photographs of kings and queens,bare-breasted village belles,holy men and large families in traditional garb have returned to our galleries,to celebrate over 150 years of portraiture in India. This year,Delhi played host to four major exhibitions that revisited photography from the 1850s to the 1950s a mini-retrospective of Raja Deen Dayal that is still going on,Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera 1860-1950,a collection of images from the Alkazi Foundation,a retrospective of Homai Vyarawala and The Waterhouse Albums.
It is interesting when these images,some of them stunning,are placed alongside contemporary photographs for a comparative reading of sociopolitical history. Raghu Rais latest book,The Indians: Portraits From My Album,appears to do that. One half of the book is filled with portraits from early India,while the second half is owned by Rais photographs of R.K. Laxman and Mother Teresa,of Kishori Amonkar and Satyajit Ray.
While the first section excites with its variety many of them are taken by unknown photographers the second section is disappointing because it is almost a tired repackaging of Rais earlier works,such as the portrait of shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan that was part of his book Indias Great Masters: A Photographic Journey into the Heart of Classical Music (2010) and the oft-repeated image of Indira Gandhi during a Congress session that was part of Indira Gandhi: A Living Legacy (2004). Even as Rai prefixes his photographs with the portraits of the past,to derive a continuity,to acknowledge a lineage,the narrative is incomplete because it is self-obsessed,because it is portraits only from my album.
This well-produced book could have gone further,included a few images by photographers such as Vyarawala,Ram Rehman and Dayanita Singh to create a layered narrative,to truly celebrate over 150 years of Indian portraiture.