Some years ago, Muhammed Ali was asked for his thoughts on the death of the great African-American boxer, Joe Louis. Ali’s comment contrasted Louis to another deceased celebrity, the reclusive and self-obsessed titan Howard Hughes. Ali said: “Howard Hughes dies, with all his billions – not a single tear. Joe Louis dies – everybody cries.”
Ali’s point, I think, was that you don’t move people with your wealth or celebrity. If one wants to impact people, even in small ways, it’s best done through showing one’s humanity, one’s generosity and one’s friendship. And, in the case of an artist as Joe Louis was, from the effect of one’s artistry.
I thought about Ali’s statement this weekend, attending the funeral of my friend, the acclaimed photographer Ranjith Kally. Like Joe Louis’, the funeral in Ranjith’s home town of Durban seemed filled with tears. Ranjith died after a short illness at the ripe old age of 91. At that age, death can hardly be unexpected, so the tears were not ones of denial or disbelief. Rather, they came from a palpable sense of loss; a loss of someone who had displayed his generosity and friendship to the people in the room, and through his artistry had moved people beyond those in the room.
If Joe Louis was known to African-Americans as “the people’s champion,” then Ranjith Kally the artist could be called by Natalians as “the people’s photographer”. While his body of work was large and diverse, it chronicled, like no other, the development of an entire community in Natal for half a century, without which we would not know ourselves.
I got to know Ranjith properly only towards the end of life, although perhaps it’s more appropriate to label it “the autumn of his life” for, as Ranjith discovered, even autumn has its pleasant surprises and secrets to offer. When we first became friendly, he was in his 75th year and had yet to have a solo exhibition. His name was not even spoken about in the same breath as many of his contemporaries. By the time of his death, the autumn season had joyously, miraculously, reaped critical success and international acclaim.
Much has been now been written about Ranjith and his work and his life story, belatedly, is now well known, which is as it should be. What I would like to describe here are two incidents which we shared and which call to mind the type of man that he was.
The first was at GIBS in Johannesburg in 2014, when, at the request of the Indian Consulate, he and I held a talk about the book we had collaborated on, Memory Against Forgetting. By then, we’d been invited to talk at launches all over the country – in Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Soweto and even small-town Howick – to go with TV and radio interviews. So the thought of dragging the diabetic octogenarian to yet another session in Johannesburg filled me with some concern. But, I suppose it’s always nice to be invited and so we agreed. Ranjith who had to fly specially from Durban, was then caught up in rush-hour traffic and emerged at the campus slightly ruffled. He hadn’t been eating well recently, and as I helped him out of the car, his blood pressure suddenly fell and he collapsed in a heap in the car park.
My heart sank and, fearing the worst, I cursed myself that I had put him through this. I found a wheelchair and a doctor was summoned, who managed to stabilise him. By then, many of the arriving audience had heard about what had happened, and had formed a circle around him. Recovering, and seeing the throng of well-wishers, Ranjith seemed to immediately regain his poise. Shrugging off my attempts to call off the show, he sat bolt upright and said, “I’ve been waiting all my life for people to come and listen to me. Can’t disappoint them now!”
So we did the talk, he in his wheelchair and me sitting next to him, in front of the rapt audience. The twinkle in his eyes had reappeared as soon as he’d seen the people, and it never left for the entire evening, as he answered question after question. For me that said a lot about how he loved engaging with people.
The other anecdote I remember of our time together had to do during the creation of the book itself. It was the only time I remember bullying him. He was convinced that the cover of the book should be one he took in 1955 of Monty Naicker and a young Nelson Mandela at the Treason Trial, while I was insistent that we use one he took in 1957 of a makeshift, “Bantu Court” in Mathubathuba. If ever there was a photograph which captured power relations under apartheid, it was this. Indeed it has subsequently become one of his most renowned images. But Ranjith was dismissive of my attempts to hail it as a masterpiece. “That!” he said nonchalantly. “I just sat down and took it, that’s all.” It said a lot about how, till the end, his modesty made him reluctant to view himself as the artist rather than the artisan.
But artist he undoubtedly was.
Ranjith, I shall miss you tremendously.
I loved you as a son to a father.
I engaged with you as an old friend, despite our age gap.
I will always think of our time together and smile.
Many years ago, another great artist came to the end of his life. This was Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Contemplating his long and meaningful life, and looking forward to death without any regrets, he said.
Our revels now are ended.
These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits
And are melted into air, into thin air…
But we are the stuff that dreams are made on
And our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Sleep well, Ranjith. DM
Bern, Switzerland has an old statue of a person eating babies. Nobody understands exactly why it's there.