Chronicles of '71
On December 7, 2012, at the opening of Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom, a photography exhibition featuring 51 images by the celebrated and decorated Indian photojournalist, Raghu Rai, a portal of memory was opened reconnecting the Bengalis, or rather transporting them to a mythic moment of the birth of its nation. A memory still raw and livid and brutally scarred, dense with a sense of being ill-served by the turns of history, viewers stood in meditative silence in front of scenes of carnage and human degradation. Mounted, sharing a common space in a gallery, the pictures jostled and thrived with a life of their own, yet with an undeniable power of communicability which drew its impetus from a collective, comprehensible knowledge that broke the barriers between visual objects and their viewers. The images were no longer foreign entities standing independently outside the subject but became the source of reflexive self-actualization inviting the audience onboard an odyssey of introspection, yielding in them an instinctual response to a need for recognition and absolution.
The series of photographs, traversing a broad spectrum of scenes representing events in their multiple facets of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, was built over a period of time. It was stark disbelief at the sight of the plight of these hapless refugees running for the remaining shreds of their life and congregating in swelling numbers on Indian territory bordering Bangladesh that compelled Rai to pick up the camera and immortalize these moments of human agony. These people were accommodated in makeshift camps in sub-human conditions, a veritable picture of a spent force; homeless, traumatized, broken and despairing. Shortly after they were taken the photographs of the refugee camp elicited a resonating 'why' from the photographer's three year old son, which echoes in equal measures the mute 'why' that reverberates from the blank yet askance gaze with which these people from another time seem to transfix us from within each frame, yet transcending its spatio-temporal order at multiple levels.
On December 4th, Rai embedded himself with the first column of the Indian Infantry that advanced towards Khulna via the infamous Jessore road. His firsthand visual documentation of the atrocity of war is rife with a tangible/palpable message of condemnation against meaningless destruction of life and loss of human dignity. The series culminates with an image depicting Bangabahdhu's triumphant return to the sovereign land of Bangladesh on 10th January, 1972.
The photographs are in black and white, the formal and stylized arrangement of all elements on the visual field, and the perfect balance between form and content are reminiscent of the technique of the 'decisive moment' that Henri Cartier- Bresson valorized. In 1977, Raghu Rai was inducted into Magnum Photos, a co-operative photograph agency, co-founded by none other than Cartier-Bresson himself. It would not be too farfetched to claim that Raghu was indebted to the French photographer in terms of style which is closely akin to zooming in on and crucially accentuating a telling detail that set the tone for the whole picture, thus affixing it with a peculiar meaning. In his frames, man presides over the nature /world he inhabits. Raghu's focus is often turned on the eye of his subjects which he believes has the capacity to tell untold stories, perhaps of an interior self. The poignant characterization of his subjects often lends an engaged and didactic dimension to his frames. A 'creative' photographer, by claim, Raghu maintains, 'Either you capture the mystery of things or you reveal the mystery, everything else is just information.'
Bengal Gallery of Fine arts in collaboration with Indira Gandhi Cultural Centre and the High Commission of India ran the exhibition from 7th through 16th December, 2012 lending a greater significance to the event by bringing these invaluable, archival photographs to a public geared to celebrate the 41st anniversary of their Independence. 51 photographs of the 71 war sprang up from an unburiable past into our present day consciousness as a nation, stirring up deep-rooted memories with the verity of its archaeological intensity they bring us closer to the resolution to right the wrongs of a past, an urge that reflects in the eyes of the teeming populace who throngs at the Shahbag Square to cry for freedom and justice, freedom from the burden of a past that has been left unresolved for too long.
- DEPART DESK