In the old days when the world was black and white, a photograph used to go through a journey. First there was the ‘negative’—an image trapped in reverse luminosity, where the unlit portions looked the lightest and vice versa. Then the light and dark were made to swap places. It’s a wonder when you see a similar graph plotted in people, especially those who waltzed across the luminous history of cinema. And who more luminous than Waheeda Rehman?
Yes, the one who shone like a lamp in the best backlit shots of Hindi cinema has now become one who captures light and movement from the other side of the camera. A wildlife photographer, no less. And the ochre-green images are a wonder to behold, even if she is gracefully modest. “There is nothing out of the world about my photography,” she tells Outlook’s Lachmi Deb Roy. “Bahut purani baat hai…I had this burning interest in wildlife photography for a long time. When I see my guruji, Himanshuu Chandrakant Sheth’s photography, I realise I have a long way to go. But what I like most is to capture the moment.”
A giraffe in Maasai Mara (2017)
A wildebeest in Ndutu, Tanzania (March 2019)
That she had plenty occasion to do. “I’d go on once-a-year safaris with a group of people interested in photography. Himanshuu teaches and takes us on brilliant wildlife trips.” Thus came about that wildebeest flying across a hazy Serengeti in an impressionistic blur, almost recalling a Lascaux cave painting. Another fruit of those encounters with places, moments and lens-eyes: the exhibition Meraki, also curated by Himanshuu. “Meraki is a Greek word that signifies leaving a piece of yourself in your work,” says Waheeda, who still calls her tryst with photography a hobby. “A real expensive hobby,” she says, laughing. Within India too, wildlife zones beckoned…Bandipur, Ranthambore, Mowgli’s jungles.
Cheetahs in Ndutu, Tanzania (March 2019)
All that at age 81. “In India, people have a habit of attaching an age-tag. ‘Why does she need to do all these things at this age?’ they’ll ask. That mentality needs to change. If you have passion and an open mind, you can learn anything you want to do. There should be no age bar for passions!” And as one grows old, it’s all the more important “to have a pastime”, she says. “Do it with love. It need not be expensive. My sister, who is 87, is fond of embroidery.” But yes, Waheeda Rehman is “lucky to be blessed with good health”. Touch wood. “I practise yoga regularly at home and that keeps me fit…wildlife photography requires travelling and walking long distances.”
Sand dunes in Namibia (2016)
More than that, she’s blessed with a seeing eye. That old ethereal image we all have of her, that was not a ‘negative’, of course. But her journey too entailed a reversal…from being seen to seeing. “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself,” art critic John Berger once wrote. That didn’t mean pure self-reflection. That little halo, that thought balloon, was more in the nature of a mirror in which the woman constantly beheld herself—as others would see her. “She existed to be looked at,” in his words. It couldn’t have been truer than for one seen as the paragon of beauty…and hence, the marvel of her journey to the other side.