S.Paul, who died in Delhi last month at the age of 88, was among the early pioneers of photojournalism in India, and a mentor not only to his more famous brother Raghu Rai, but to hundreds of young photographers across at least three generations. Here’s a tribute, by one of his students.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. – Michelangelo”
Paul without a camera was a rare sight. That day, as he opened the door of his living room, for once, he did not have one hanging from his shoulder. “Sir, do you have any photography-related equipment on you today?” I asked in jest. With a mischievous smile, he pulled out a camera lens cleaning brush from his pocket. Through many meetings over two decades at his residence, he would always step into the living room, as I’d sit there waiting, with a camera. It was an extension of his physical being. He had once told me “You’ll never find me without a piece of equipment.”
It was at Lodi Garden that I first saw the master at work. He had retired a decade earlier, from The Indian Express, in 1989 and would take students of photography on photo walks. For three hours, he shot birds in flight, explored the form of trees, shot fresh leaves against the light, ran behind kids to freeze fleeting moments and captured the beauty of the Sultanate monuments, switching subjects seamlessly between people, birds, architecture and nature — all with the energy of a 25-year old. He saw pictures everywhere. A truly versatile photographer, Paul saab, as he was called by his legion of admirers, had an oeuvre that stretched across a vast range, from news to nature, portraits and street photography. As he would say, “The world is beautiful and multi-faceted, why limit yourself to one style?” He was a photographer’s photographer. You had to be one to see the genius of the man. Born in Jhang, Pakistan, in 1929, his family shifted to Shimla after Partition. “It was 1951. I was an engineering draftsman in Shimla. On March 1, after collecting my salary, I bought my first camera (a Zeiss Ikon 6×6), a tripod, a roll of film and a book called All-in-one Camera Book. Through the night, I read the book cover to cover. Next day, I exposed the roll and, instead of going to my office, hung around the lab, waiting anxiously to see the results. Meanwhile, I convinced the lab owner to teach me the printing process; that done, I picked up printing and developing equipment on credit, exposed another film and developed it that very night,” he had told me, during a conversation in 1999.
By the time he joined The Indian Express in 1962 (in Delhi), Henri Cartier-Bresson had ushered in `The Decisive Moment’ style of photojournalism. Along with Kishor Parekh of Hindustan Times, who had trained in the US, the self-taught Paul set the early pace. Suddenly, the quality of pictures rose several notches, and photographs began getting more prominence in newspapers. It was the start of the golden era of Indian photojournalism. A decade later, Paul’s brother, Raghu Rai, and Raghubir Singh joined forces to further inspire future generations to pick up the camera. They really were the fab four of the last 50 years.
“Paul saab and my father Kishor Parekh were the best of friends, and both were photojournalists. I daresay it was they who collectively revolutionised the face of Indian newspaper photojournalism in the 1960s. Though both worked for rival newspapers, they would egg each other on in a healthy competition, and invariably meet every night over a rum and Coke, to reflect on the day’s events and who had the ‘better’ picture. Both were equally gracious in their praise if they had been ‘beaten’ for the day. Such was their friendship and professional camaraderie,” wrote Swapan Parekh in The Indian Express.
Despite being relatively low-profile as compared to his flamboyant younger brother, he touched the lives of hundreds of photographers across the country in a myriad of ways, so it wasn’t surprising that the newspapers were filled with tributes from dozens of photographers, young and old, in the days after he died. “I met him a year or so back at the launch of a Sony mirrorless camera, and marvelled at his desire to learn more about new technologies in his late 80s. He was a student all his life and loved photography very, very deeply,” recalls fashion photographer Tarun Khiwal, “and when I met him a couple of months ago, and in his failing health, his regret was that he couldn’t step out to shoot.” As he lay ailing on his bed, fading in and out of consciousness, he would ask for his cameras and lens, according to his son Neeraj Paul, photo editor at The Times of India. So it is only fitting that he was cremated at Nigambodh Ghat by the river Yamuna, with a camera. So long, sir.