New Delhi

Ram Rahman

Lalit Kala Akademi

A huge, buff bodybuilder flexes his muscles as three delighted, scantily clad female acrobats applaud: These painted figures hover on a billboard above a wall built of corrugated iron sheeting, across which are lettered the words GENTS URINAL. The scene is typical of Ram Rahman’s mostly black-and-white photographs, in which concatenations of representational codes—hand painted billboards and text, as in Gents Urinal, Delhi, 1991—mingle with banners, buildings, crowds, and resting figures so that perspective collapses. This maze of painted sign and intimate streetscape is not hard to find in New Delhi, but it is becoming atypical with the onslaught of development and the boom in construction. Rahman is the Atget of 1980s and ’90s New Delhi, capturing a city in transformation.

In the early photographs, India’s political hub seems to be submerged under handpainted walls, billboards, placards, and political banners. This is the almost-Pop side of Rahman’s aesthetic. The city’s inhabitants are squeezed to the edge of the frame, or are hidden, or doubled, by film stars and politicians whose photographed faces and painted bodies appear on scrims, posters, and shop signs, often scaled uncannily to the same size as the men and women who disappear behind them. But as this vast, self-curated retrospective shows, Rahman was also witness to historic events. Safdar Hashmi Funeral, 1989, depicts a procession of mourners carrying the body of the famous street-theater activist, who was brutally murdered by Congress Party thugs. It records the scene so that formal breadth, not indignant rhetoric, is emphasized. Gray, close-toned printing, a compressed tonality in accord with the artist’s elliptical points of view, reinforces this lightness of touch. In Barakhamba Road, 1994, behind a right-wing political poster that reads, PROSECUTE PRIME MINISTER RAO, spreads the wreckage of an old, graceful, but semidemolished Lutyens-era home, itself overshadowed by enormous new buildings. These were the undistinguished early-’90s precursors, as Rahman well knows, of vast developments rising across South Delhi, stretching toward the high-rise, satellite city of Gurgaon at the state border.

The exhibition also included a number of Rahman’s portraits, which lovingly record an older generation of artists, intellectuals, and politicians; a 1995 photograph of Baroda painter Bhupen Khakhar nestled in the lap of a Mahatma Gandhi statue is exemplary. In his ’80s photographs it is clear that Delhi was still a relatively small scene in which future prime ministers and artists could relax together, meeting Rahman’s endlessly fascinated gaze as if deeply familiar with the photographer. In his later cocktail party snaps, iconic older bohemians share the picture frame with a younger, less leonine generation of artists or sleek minor celebrities, as in Vicki Sahni, Nikhil Khanna, Rohit Bal, Delhi, 1997.

Rahman claims, in a catalogue essay tracing the history of postwar Indian photography, that documentary photographs like his own are no longer the “spine of Indian photo culture.” His point is that this was perhaps to be expected, for in the late ’90s, artists (such as Pushpamala N. and Subodh Gupta) rather than documentarians took up photography, just like their European and American peers. But this was unfortunate, he diplomatically implies, in the face of huge Maoist insurgencies across rural India, revolts against regional Special Economic Zones, and caste uprisings. Indian documentary photographs of these are missing because their place has been taken by images better suited to the consuming classes’ taste for art. In another catalogue essay, gallerist Peter Nagy says Rahman has a special interest in the symbols of politics at the moment they enter popular culture, moments that are as decisive as any caught by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It turns out that Rahman was recording his hometown and its inhabitants, rich and poor, on the cusp of massive change; this was his contribution to the much-reduced trajectory of documentary photography, a small piece of the larger picture that was left incomplete. Such deliberately unspectacular, matter-of-fact mingling of signs, representations, and history is, even so, overwhelming in its pathos.

Charles Green