Keeping it natural

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Keeping it natural

Ace wildlife photographer Rajesh Bedi has flown in a hot air balloon over miles of dunes, camped in jungles and faced tricky situations with his subjects. The result is a collection of are yet natural photographs. Rachna bisht-rawat presents stories behind his work.

Photographer Rajesh Bedi is a tall, grey-haired, distinguished looking (despite a pony tail) man with a quick smile. When I meet him for the first time, he is being disarmingly apologetic as well. “It is my birthday and people kept calling since morning. I am really sorry, I forgot our appointment,” he says, looking genuinely sorry. He has walked in 45 minutes late for an 11 am interview. Though I confess I was fuming earlier, having missed breakfast to get to India Habitat Centre on time battling New Delhi’s mad traffic, breathless from a quick sprint from the basement parking, he is quickly forgiven. To be honest, I have had a very pleasant half-hour loitering through his exhibition, accompanied by the pleasing aroma of hot coffee and lingering strains of Rajasthani folk music.

The images he has captured in Rajasthan — in the foothills of the Aravallis, Bishnoi villages, the vast yellow desert, rocky twists of the Chambal river, aerial shots from a hot air balloon — are absorbing and intriguing. Rajesh took six years to put these images together for his exhibition, which ties up with the launch of his coffee table book — Rajasthan, Under the Desert Sky. On a craggy ledge in hard rocks that jut over a bend in the Chambal river near Kota sit two men, smoking in companionable silence. Their bright turbans are a stark contrast to the dull rock. A hauntingly beautiful little girl, her head covered by her black cotton dupatta, looks out of a canvas. She is a nomad from the Gadia Lohar tribe that claims descent from Maharana Pratap. There is, of course, Rajesh’s famous picture of a Bishnoi woman feeding her daughter at one breast and a chinkara at the other; startling and arresting. However, the one that touches my heart is that of two kids on a donkey, leaving their tiny hut in the desert, a cot standing upright next to it. That is all they have and the caption says the upright cot implies that the family is not home. It makes me think a bit about how much we desire and how much we really need.
Historic moment

The conversation veers to Kiran Bishnoi of Jodhpur district, the woman feeding the chinkara. Rajesh recounts how that historic picture happened. A friend spotted it in a local newspaper and called him up, he says. He immediately went to Jodhpur, hired a car and after a two-hour drive, reached a small hutment of Bishnois. The lady was doing her household chores; a chinkara was roaming around the house and jumping around the courtyard. Rajesh asked the man of the house if his wife would allow him to take pictures when she was feeding the fawn. He said she would. Kiran was feeding her daughter when the young chinkara started going round impatiently. When he came to her, she offered him her other breast. “She wasn’t shy, but I was,” says Rajesh. He was not able to raise his eyes to look at her, since it went against his Indian family values. He had to tell himself that he was there to record something that generations would remember.
Even then, he says, he could only bring himself to look at her through his camera lens.

Rajesh says he sets very strict limits on what he does to his pictures on a computer.

When photographers shoot digitally, they sometimes have to go through a computer to increase the contrast, he explains. “In the older times, when we used films, we would reduce light in one particular area by dodging with our hand. I do that now on the computer, and so do all other photographers. But, when you come to the stage where the computer takes over your photography, I feel it is not a faithful presentation. Computer graphics should be used to assist and not dominate.”

Rajesh says he has observed the younger generation’s reliance on computers. “They are ruining themselves. Computer graphics are fine if you have a good base, but if you are using computers to create pictures instead of spending time in the field and struggling to get what you want; if you think aaj cloudy ho gaya, chalo lab mein theek kar lenge, I find it very sad.” He feels a master or a guru is very important to steer a young photographer in the right direction, which unfortunately younger photographers don’t realise.

Early influences

Rajesh’s guru was his father. He was a botanist who would set off in the jungles around Haridwar in search of plants. Later, he started taking pictures. It became a passion, and as children, Rajesh and his brother would accompany him to the forest; bags packed with their mother’s home-made paranthas. They would often spend nights camping on trees, and their father would show them footprints of elephants, neelgais and other wild animals. As a child, Rajesh would often look at Life magazine and National Geographic and wonder why Indian photographers could not do that kind of work. Now, of course, he takes assignments from them.

Cows and buffaloes attracted him the most. He would travel 30-40 km on a scooter and capture cows. His work was an instant hit. Famous magazines at the time like Dharmyug and Weekly started carrying his pictures; The Junior Statesman carried a photo essay by him. Soon, his work was noticed by the Max Mueller director, who held an exhibition of his photographs in New Delhi, which Indira Gandhi also visited. Rajesh, who was already quite thrilled with his experience of talking to a foreigner, was amazed that she was in his show. A picture that she noticed and discussed with him had two cows chewing a newspaper carrying a picture of Sheikh Mujeed. “Indira Gandhi asked me why I had included that picture in the exhibition, and I asked her: why not?” he laughs. Rajesh, who was barely out of his teens then, sold two of his pictures at that exhibition for Rs 1,000 each and it was a big moment for him.

From there, he went on to make a natural history film on gharials for the BBC. That was the first time that the gharial was shot in the wild, and the film made waves internationally bringing him and his brother fame and more work. His journey as a professional wildlife photographer had picked up pace. Over the years, his photographs have been published in leading international magazines and have also been decorating Indian postage stamps. He has done coffee table books on Banaras, Ladakh and Sikkim. His book on Rajasthan has aerial shots of Rajasthan taken from a hot air balloon.

Aerial capture 

Going up in a balloon across miles and miles of sand dunes was an eye opener, confesses Rajesh. In the very first 10 minutes of his first flight, he had encountered a chinkara. The balloon was about 400 feet above him, and its size was so huge that the chinkara ran away, terrorised. After a while, the wind changed direction and the chinkara returned. That was when Rajesh took his shot and got a rare picture.

Rajasthan has a barrenness which adds so much reflection and brightness that it’s a challenge to get the human element and the desert in relationship with the harsh environment, feels Rajesh. Most shots have to be taken when the first rays hit the village. But the challenge adds to its mystique and charm. Though he has spent six years shooting for his first book on Rajasthan, Rajesh says, if he gets a chance, he will be happy spending three more years doing a second book there.
 

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