In images: An Indian photographer turned her camera on doors and found many hidden stories

Rashmi Rai’s photographs tell many tales – her own, and of cities, people and moments.

It was while walking down a street in old Udaipur that photographer Rashmi Rai spotted a doorway that seemed to be an entrance to two worlds at once. A sign indicated it to be a Hindu temple dedicated to Hindu god Hanuman but when she peeked in, she found an informal café catering to the many tourists who visit the old picturesque city in Rajasthan. A resident said that it was once a temple and when the café owners took over, they retained the inner sanctum. Rai whipped out her camera and managed to take a photograph just as a priest walked through the door.

“Doors are fascinating for what they symbolise,” said Rai. “They can mean new beginnings or a trip down memory lane or just a window into an era gone by. The doors in Udaipur have a lot of religious symbols painted around them – strings of dried mango leaves that were hung on the frame for an auspicious occasion, painted images of gods and goddesses or other religious motifs.”

The 44-year-old photographer from Delhi has visited many cities and, on her travels, has constantly found herself drawn to the ways in which people decorate doorways. An exhibition of 21 photographs by Rai, titled Breath and Boundaries, of such entrances was on at The Triveni Kala Sangam Art Gallery in New Delhi till December 28. This was Rai’s first solo show.

'Untitled', by Rashmi Rai.
'Untitled', by Rashmi Rai.

The first image at the exhibition was a set of three, each one of a single window painted bright blue. The open window with a planter of flowers in the middle was flanked by two windows that are shut. For Rai, the three windows reflect the personality of the people behind those windows.

Trained in business management, she moved on to pursue art in 2001 and by 2010, she found herself completely in love with photography. Breath and Boundaries, according to Rai, focused on the emotions that doors, which are at once forbidding and inviting, invoke in every individual. “People feel differently when in front of different doors. You are different at the door of your home, you feel differently when about to open the door and enter a room for an interview.”

'Inhale', by Rashmi Rai.
'Inhale', by Rashmi Rai.

Of the 21 photographs on display, 16 featured doorways from across Indian cities, while the rest were from Rai’s travels to Spain in April. While walking around old Barcelona, she turned a corner to find a marketplace that seemed to be closed for the day and was inspired by the visual of the empty street lined with closed shutters and what seemed like a large, unending graffiti mural. At the gallery in Triveni Kala Sangam, the images of the Spanish market were arranged contiguously in a row to emulate a long, graffiti-splashed street.

“It is almost impossible to come across a pulled down shutter or door of a shop in Spain that doesn’t have some graffiti or artwork on it,” said Rai. However, as fascinated as Rai was with the streets of villages in Spain, her favourite image is from the trip she made to Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí’s home in Portlligat, which has been turned into a museum. The photograph taken from one of the rooms in Dalí’s house looks out from a window on to the sea. “I imagine him sitting and looking out of the window at the peaceful waters and thinking and creating. I feel like that image is charged with his energy.”

'Untitled', by Rashmi Rai.
'Untitled', by Rashmi Rai.

A door has often been used as symbol for passage from one world to another in religion, mythology, and literature. According to Hindu religious beliefs, doors are decorated during festivals, for it is believed to be the path of entry for Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. According to Vaastu Shastra, a traditional Hindu system of architecture, a plain door is considered inauspicious. The text not only gives guidelines for the proportions of doors but also on how it should be decorated.

Doors and windows inspire a certain amount of intrigue, and artists and photographers all over the world have captured this simple structure. For Indian artist KR Santhana Krishnan, the fascination for doors comes from the colourful doors of old, ancestral homes he saw all around him while growing up in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. His paintings include old traditional doors or paintings on wooden doors. In an interview to The New Indian Express, Krishnan said: “The doors of all traditional homes are sculpted with so much workmanship. And interestingly, all the doors will be open, none of them will ever be closed... It’s very welcoming, unlike how it is in cities.”

'Unknown Sides', by Rashmi Rai.
'Unknown Sides', by Rashmi Rai.

For Mumbai-based photographer Divyakshi Gupta, doors are more than just prettily painted frames. They reflect the stories of the homes they guard. The photographer who blogs as The Quirky Wanderer, finds city doors boring and those in little villages endlessly interesting. “Living in concrete jungles, finding a bright, freshly painted, aesthetically pleasing door is a delight in itself,” she writes in a blog post.

For Rai, however, it comes down to whatever tugs at her heartstrings.

According to Gargi Seth, curator of the exhibition, Rai’s works showcase her eye for identifying the beautiful in the mundane. In a curatorial note, Seth writes:

Rashmi Rai’s art explores the interplay of our jaded, bland, urban existence with vistas of rustic charm, or of faraway town allure…. Whereas we may keenly admire manicured resorts, forts, gardens or palaces, it is equally, if not more, glimpses of unpremeditated, scattered sights that gladden the heart. Glimpses, for instance, of a crooked street, a decrepit corner, a chance glance into an alley, a shuttered door, etc., form a good part of our subconscious reminisces….It is this subtle yearning that finds succor in Rai’s photographs.  

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