On India Today’s Ramdev Cover

Raj Lalwani writes on Bandeep Singh’s photograph of Ramdev for India Today, easily one of 2016’s most talked about covers in Indian publishing.

bandeep-singh

How does one even begin to talk about an image that leaves you fumbling for words? It has been a week since Bandeep Singh turned the India Today cover on its head, and the photograph continues to trouble me, even as I write this. What I’m more troubled about, though, is the reason why I am troubled, for I wonder if it says something about the photographer, the photographed, or more accurately, you, and me.

I am not very comfortable with the overt contextualisation of photos. It should just be about the visuality, I tell myself. But no photograph is an island, and the twisted story of the twisted Ramdev—I refuse to call him Baba—is why this is an important photograph. I may alternate between raising my eyebrows and raising my hat at what the photographer has done (and why he’s done it), but it’s not because of what the picture, or Ramdev, looks like. It is not so much about how it is seen, but about what it is seen as. And as personality clashes with politics, perception meets prejudice. Why is this image the way it is? Why isthis image? The raison d’être of the volte face, both intended and inadvertent, becomes an important factor in reading it.

One may say that the very function of photography, is to provoke. But it was not the outrageous pose with the oft outraged subject that outraged me, but instead, the very fact that it was on the cover. The week that preceded the publishing of this issue saw the most disturbing flare up of the Kashmir conflict in several years, with the protests that followed the killing of Burhan Wani, and a complicated tale of dissent, nationalism and human-right violations. And yet, India Today, a magazine that has historically represented Indian journalism’s voice of concern, chose to showcase Ramdev on the cover, the posture exemplifying what the editorial decision seemed to say. The choice to include the Patanjali package in the frame, almost making the story seem like a public-relations exercise. Surely, the photo would have been equally memorable and communicative without it.

I looked at him, he grinned back. Ramdev’s squint seemed, to me, a disconcerting wink, an audacious, nasty shrug at all else. Like hearing of strife and being told not to worry, good days are here, or their literal translation. Orange is the new black.

Munich has just been attacked, as I write this. The sheer number of terror attacks that one has seen in the last one month, is mindnumbing. And yet, a majority of my mindspace is currently occupied by a man and his aasans, with all his topsy-turvy contradictions. That is the most worrying aspect about the image. And yet, that is its greatest success.

What’s more fascinating though, is that the more I wish to steer away from the picture, the more I am drawn to it. And once I start examining my own reading, I wonder, is it the image talking, or my personal bias? How would each one of us, with our varied, colourful and contradictory biases view this cover? If we strip ourselves of our leanings, left, right, centre-of-something, how will we see this photograph, simply, as a photograph? In that very island one spoke of, with its sheer visual power.

I squinted at the cover, no pun intended, and tried to dissociate the photo from the headline.

Bandeep’s provocative image actually reminds me of a Gildenesque approach to startle the viewer. It’s a visual trope that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but one can see Benjamin Lowy using it right now, rather interestingly, while photographing Republican portraits in America.

As has been seen through all the memes that have (mis)appropriated the image, it is obvious that once a photograph is published, it takes on a new life. Based on who sees it, with what baggage, the interpretations are new, and the photographer’s original intent, often lost.

For instance, without the heading, without the thousand words, I would have imagined that the image is actually a critique of Ramdev. Singh’s defiantly personal interpretation of all that’s wrong about this man who’s called a Baba. India Today’s insightful take on all that’s wrong about India, today.

And yet, I’d have thought that in satirising Ramdev through his gleeful posture and corporatesque lighting, the image also validates him, valourises him, even glorifies him. These are diametrically opposite streams of thought that coexist, and it is precisely this tension that makes this an image that we would all remember.

For what you see is not Ramdev, but the very idea of Ramdev. He,the contortionist, he, the yoga guru. He, with his langotesque cloak of traditionality, he, with a scientific business acumen. A carefully built empire, but with impulsive, well-meaning rants against black money. Political player. Political pawn. The one with widely followed gharelu nuskhe. The homosexuality-curing, threatening-to-behead bigot.

Ramdev is a curious fellow. Despite him having made alarming statements, one doesn’t view him with the same trepidation as one would see a Yogi Adityanath, for instance. He is no stranger to virality, with even those who oppose his ideologies choosing to chuckle at some of his antics. There are strands of white, and shades of grey, to add to all his saffron. Bandeep Singh’s photograph is a remarkable encapsulation of all of Ramdev’s meandering identities. It almost makes you ask, will the real Ramdev, please stand up? (and stare at us, upside down)

I looked at him, he grinned back. I wish that he didn’t. I long for a different time, perhaps. When drama could be mellow, not melodrama.When viral was just fever. News would develop, and not shatter. It’s strange to be working in publishing, considering I yearn for a time when our fate on newsstands is not about demanding attention, but slowly, drawing it in. Clickbait killed the considered headline, listicles murdered nuance. We live in a time when the most popular journalist is also our favourite primetime actor. With attention spans being microseconds, images need to shout, to swim against the sea. I am not for grabbing any eyeballs, I would rather be the one pulling the heartstrings.

But nostalgia is a dangerous game, for even nostalgia is never the same.

First published in Better Photography.

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