Acclaimed photographer Nemai Ghosh dedicated over 25 years of his career photographing the filmmaker Satyajit Ray. His photos of Ray are now the focus of an ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s Nehru Memorial. Bhumika Popli speaks to Ghosh about his career.
In the history of photography, few celebrated figures dedicated themselves to a single subject for a good part of their career. Dayanita Singh’s series of photos of the tabla player Zakir Hussain come to mind. As do Prabuddha Dasgupta’s series, Edge of Faith, which brought to life the forgotten personal histories of the Catholic community in Goa.
The Calcutta-based photographer Nemai Ghosh is another exemplar of this style of artistic commitment. For almost a quarter of a century, Ghosh photographed Satyajit Ray, with a view to creating series of portraits of the filmmaker at different points of his life. These photos are now part of an ongoing exhibition at the Museum Building of The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi.
Entitled Nemai Ghosh: Satyajit Ray & Beyond, the exhibition features 42 photographs—centred on Ray and his life in movies—which are originally part of the Delhi Art Gallery’s archive.
In an interaction with Guardian 20, Ghosh talked this project. “People sometimes called me ‘Ray’s Photographer’. Henri-Cartier Bresson, in fact, addressed me as the ‘photo biographer of Satyajit Ray’”, said Ghosh.
Ghosh followed Ray around for more than 25 years. He was there on Ray’s film sets. He was there in his moments of solitude. And he was also there when Ray was thoroughly involved in his writing.
“I first met Satyajit Ray while he was shooting Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen, although we did not share a single word on our first day. In fact, he was not even aware of my presence,” said Ghosh about his first meeting with Ray. “I was in a trance watching him work behind the camera on his film Gupi Gayen Bagha Bayen.”
Ghosh was much taken by Ray’s “hypnotic presence” on the sets. “I kept on clicking him for I don’t know how long,” Ghosh said. “And then came to my senses when I found that my film stock was finished. Bangshi Chandragupta, the art director of Ray’s unit, showed the photographs to Ray himself. Ray asked, ‘Who clicked these?’ Chandragupta pointed towards me and said, ‘Nemai did.’ Ray looked at me and said, ‘You have clicked the photos exactly the way I would have taken them.’ Then he pushed me into his set, telling me to click more photos. And my life was changed. I, with a fixed lens camera and a complete amateur back then, had started my journey as a still photographer.”
But Ghosh never intended to be a photographer. In fact, he was training to be an actor and even worked in theatre for some time. As a photographer, he made extensive use of his theatre experience. He said, “I come from a theatre background and in Ray’s actions, gestures and postures I found enough drama which captivated me, and I kept on clicking his every moment. His body language, the way he talked, was all hypnotic and I captured those magical moments with my camera. His presence itself was compelling enough for me to work with him for over two decades. In fact, I still don’t know how fast the time travelled.”
In a way, Ray had become Ghosh’s photography teacher as well. “I learned a lot from him. Often he shared his views on photographic compositions. He would elaborate the reasons behind his liking or disliking a particular photograph. And that’s how I got to learn a great deal of photography as an art from him. Besides, I was a great admirer of his professional ethics. Discipline, honesty, sincerity, time management and tenacity were the pillars based on which his work ethics stood. Not only I respected them, but tried to pick them up in my professional practice as well,” said Ghosh.
Ghosh, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2010, has authored a number of books on Ray. Ghosh said, “In a book titled Satyajit Ray at 70, Ray himself said a few words about me which exactly describe the kind of relationship we shared. To quote him, ‘For close on 25 years, Nemai Ghosh has been assiduously photographing me in action and repose—a sort of Boswell working with a camera rather than a pen. Insofar as these pictures rise above mere records and assume a value as examples of a photographer’s art, they are likely to be of interest to a discerning viewer. I hope Nemai’s effort will not go in vain.”
Ghosh and Ray together present the perfect example of two creative imaginations complementing each other. One artist’s career was made while literally following in the footsteps of another, more senior artist. Ghosh said, “I did not have the faintest idea while working with Ray in a complete trance, when and how the sense of photography as an art had developed in me. To be honest, I just followed his every move and becoming an artist in the process was just a phenomenon that happened in my subconscious. Later, people began addressing me as an ‘Artist Photographer Nemai Ghosh’.”
The show is on view at Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum & Library till 10 June