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Birth Pangs of a Nation

Deb Mukharji

By Raghu Rai
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 116, Rs. 1495.00


Not very long ago, Raghu Rai found a box containing rolls of long lost black and white negatives of photographs he had taken in 1971. They were images of refugees streaming across the border into India from East Pakistan and of the battles in December leading to the fall of Dhaka and the surrender of the Pakistan army. It is a remarkable coincidence that another photographer, Lear Levin had put away vast footages of 1971, until retrieved by (late) Tareque and Catherine Masud, to be resurrected as the epochal Muktir Gaan (Song of Freedom) after quarter of a century.   Raghu Rai’s images need no introduction. The hundred odd black and white photographs starkly depict the pain and the suffering of the old and the young as they trudge the dusty road to safety. Many of the faces are haunting. Even when shelter is found, be it in camps or in large pipes by the wayside, and safety ensured from the ravages of the Pakistan army, the uncertainty of the future is captured in Rai’s lens. Many are stunning in their appeal, if that be the right word. The young expectant mother lying on a bed of straw, her dark eyes pools of uncertainty and hopelessness, would remain etched in memory. As too the cries of despair of children; or the elderly with vacant looks that seem to ask of the world how this could be allowed to happen   Raghu Rai’s lens captures long lines of fugitives from terror, elderly women bent double as they flee, some carried in hammocks slung between bamboo poles, a few lucky ones on buses and bullock carts. And yet, the governments of the world looked away. I have personal memories of visits to some refugee camps in the summer of 1971 and have seen refugees arrive and the bodies of infants who did not make the journey. I also recall the steely determination of Bangladeshi singers as they sang through the evening in camps, lit by hurricane lamps and battery operated sound systems, with lyrics to sustain hope for the future among those who had lost all hope.   Besides life in the camps and the columns of refugees there are also photographs of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters, of Indian soldiers going into battle and, finally, the surrender at Dhaka on December 16, 1971.   The text in the book is understandably sparse as it is the photographs that ...

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