India’s best known photographer is emerging from a decade long semi-hibernation to take up camera full time once again. His new work, he says, will be guided by a different philosophy from the one that made him famous over the last 30 years. Of course the old Raghu Rai would be on display as well—at big retrospectives of his works that are being planned in Tokyo and New York over the coming months.

 

The baby donkey stood in the village outside Rohtak, minding his own business, just as he’d done many summer afternoons like this one. But that day there was a new man in town. He was carrying something funny in his hands and kept going closer and closer to the donkey. Scared, the animal bolted. The young man ran right after him, to the accompaniment of the laughter of the children in the village. And kept running: it was the early ‘60s and there were no telephoto lenses then. Finally, tired and resigned, the khotte da puttar stopped, and stood.

The stranger clicked.

That picture ended up hogging half a page of the London Times. The Haryanvi donkey soon graced New Year’s greeting cards. And the life of the young civil engineer on his first outing with the small camera which his brother, photographer S. Paul, had given him that very morning changed. Dramatically: Raghu Rai never went back to the drawing board and went on to become arguably India’s best-known photographer, the world’s most prestigious photo agency Magnum’s man in India, and books tumbled out year after year: Delhi, Taj Mahal, The Sikhs, Mother Teresa, Calcutta… “My brother ignited this fire in me,” says Raghu. Paul had cried Eureka (actually it was yeh tho kamal ki hai) when he saw the donkey emerging in the dark room while he was developing the five rolls his brother had taken. Paul sent the photograph to the Times. It was 1964.

Cut to 2001, mid-May. Raghu has just moved into his new basement office, a stone’s throw from his house in Rabindra Nagar in New Delhi. He hasn’t had an office for well over ten years, ever since he left India Today (where he was a pioneering photo editor for over a decade) in 1990. At India’s then premier news magazine he was a cross between a tornado and a bulldozer: pitched battles between him and the rest of the staffers were legendary. Raghu usually had his way, and in this conflagration of talents the magazine metamorphosed into one of its finest phases in the ‘80s, when the notion of photo editors came into its own.

The Raghu Rai Moment, MW archives

And Raghu loomed large. Etched in the mind are images of the victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, especially the unseeing eyes of a young child. Equally haunting: his photo essay, which almost seems to take us into the mind of a blind man as he goes about his life. Or the schizophrenic inmates of a 13th century dargah in Ervadi in Tamil Nadu: in chains and sculptural in their contours in Raghu’s black and white images, they recall Rodin’s prisoners of Calais. Who can forget his series on classical musicians which captured Kumar Gandharva, Bismillah Khan or Pandit Bhimsen Joshi in their moments of epiphany. Or the unforgettable and lyrical photograph of a woman at prayer in the foreground with a darkening sky over Jama Masjid in the background. Raghu counts the magazine’s special issue on Indira Gandhi’s assassination as one of his best assignments. The cover picture is a close-up of her patrician profile as she makes her last journey.

Age seems to have tempered him. Raghu’s gone mellow: the wild hair’s tamer, the restlessness and flamboyance reined in, and the Raghuisms pared down to a minimum: the philosophical musings about life, space, energy reserved for the chosen few. But he says he is in the process of making a comeback with his camera. “I am going back to being a full-time photographer now,” he says. Like Rip Van Winkle rubbing sleep out of his eyes and getting back to business. The last ten years were spent largely landscaping and working on his farm on the outskirts of Delhi, and bringing up two small children.

Touching 60 now (he was born in Jhhang in West Punjab in the winter of 1942) he will also be the subject of many retrospectives in the coming year. He’s off to Tokyo for an exhibition of his works at the prestigious Bunka Mura Museum of Arts. Later this year, the International Centre for Photography in New York will show his works. And, in between, there will be a showing in Italy as well. Back home in India, Raghu will be curating an exhibition on 150 years of Indian photography for the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Also on the anvil are many more books on a variety of subjects including Sikhs, Musicians and Lakshadweep.

What also has his adrenaline at high tide is his tryst with old technology: “I am interested in using old and new technology together.” The old at the moment is laid out before him on the table as we talk in his office. There are two amazing old glass plate negatives—one from a series of portraits of beautiful women, the other looks like a mini Delhi Darbar with rose petals on the floor. The two are part of a series of fifteen he bought from a man in Puskar whose grandfather had bought out a Delhi studio that went defunct in 1925. And then there is his piece de resistance and present day inspiration: a tattered book, almost 150 years old with eaten-away covers. Inside, are original prints of photographs of talukdars in Eastern India.

The Raghu Rai Moment, MW archives

These seem to speak to you from the past. Raghu now wants just this: “Look, today you use 1/25th of a second shutter speed. Before you know it the photograph has been taken. But with the old technology, you sat them down, they were all set, and they had to be like that for almost two minutes. Sometimes, you placed a chair, and to make it more romantic a vase with flowers on one side. In that two-minute exposure so many things must have been going on in their minds. And what was happening showed on their faces, you captured the emotional movements. So many feelings were then mixed, the emotions superimposed, intensified. Whatever goes on in the mind gets recorded.”

Raghu is going to use the same technique, with a big camera format and slow film. He plans to keep the person in the foreground, using a long exposure. And all the while people in the background will come and go. “The trees may move, but the foreground and what is stationary will be in focus…This way I can capture life’s other moments. The background can be fluid, there are lots of layers in this kind of photography.”

Piggybacking on new technology is one thing. Riding it, often without a saddle, is another. Raghu is only too aware of the pitfalls as technology advances rapidly. “Men become redundant with auto focus, auto winding, auto bracketing, auto rewinding, oh, yes and auto flash too. Where’s the man? You have to convert modern technology and use it for your benefit to express yourself in a stronger way.” For him new technology is a wonderful tool to capture India’s many contradictions. “So many centuries live side by side in India. So many layers side by side.”

The Next Best Thing for him is the digital moving camera. He recently went with his architect wife Mita to Guru Ki Lila in a village called Krishnkot in Gurdaspur. Here there were, surprisingly, wall paintings in a temple of both the Krishna Lila and Guru Lila. Raghu filmed the families of the village, and what he saw on his camera screen blew his mind. “You can shoot what you see at night under one bulb, he exclaims”, adding, “now I want to make a film on the Taj with this… I will start with the monsoon.” I can just see him chasing the clouds, as he did while working on his book on the Taj Mahal. His best-selling book has as much of the clouds over Agra as it does of Shah Jahan’s love letter in marble to Mumtaz.

And these days, it is creativity, to paraphrase an old poet, recollected in tranquility. Raghu is no longer a trigger-happy photographer. He shoots very little these days, and spends more time savouring the “enriched moments”. The India Today chapter is closed. He believes that his work until the early ‘90s was “physically and emotionally pretty dramatic… romantic and even emotionally very physical.” But during his time-out he had plenty of time to think about what photography should be.

It is certainly not about getting great compositions. Nor about writing oneself into the picture. Or fixing pictures. “If I had not left the media, I would be like a dead man wanting applause from the same people,” explains Raghu. In Raghuspeak: “You pick up a moment from a face or slice of life with such honesty, and without inflicting any style or composition so that if tomorrow you return it to that moment, life will start moving all over again.” Is this Raghu-as-medium?

Take the pictures he chose for this magazine. At first glance, they seem to be essays in tranquility—there’s no sense of drama, no apparent action. And for a moment you wonder why he chose these photographs. But look again, through his eyes, and all sorts of things are happening. For example in the photograph of a bathing ghat near Kolkata’s Howrah bridge you see a young boy stretching on the beach, and mirroring him, just behind, a dog who is also stretching: if you look longer a kaleidoscope clicks into focus. Elaborates Raghu: “I am looking at the simple, daily happenings of life. These have their own relevance and potency. Every inch has things happening here. It has the feel of a physical experience and an inner experience of the people—through their moods, gestures, and body language.”

Similarly, there are many layers in the photographs of a man wistfully looking out of a train going through Assam; the man making Durga statues in Kolkata; or the sadhu in Banaras. “There is not just one dramatic person in the foreground, not just one dramatic moment. As you grow in understanding, the canvas becomes much larger, every inch of space has meaning. And you grow in your awareness and understanding as you deal with complexities of life on various levels. Your frame has to have the fullness of life.”

The Raghu Rai Moment, MW archives

Raghu is no longer telling stories. He is after the mystery of life—“everything else is information or a story”—GOI stuff (for the Government of India to do). It wasn’t always so: “In my early work there may have been an old man with a sculptural body, or a busty woman—these photographs were strong on one thing. And all fell for it.” It was too easy, a given. He now wants to go beyond the physical level: “It’s life itself I am after. Not to create it, but to show it.”

Where is this prose coming from? Nature now gives him his cues. He reads the clouds like hieroglyphics. Clouds and Raghu have a special relationship. The other day, a hot April day, while waiting in a studio for a television show we were both on, the sky suddenly went dark. The winds became tempestuous. And then the drops of rain began to fall, gently. Raghu became a transformed man—child would be a more accurate word. He was almost out of the window of the first floor.

The major lessons came during those landscaping days at his farm. It was like ravines when he bought it. Raghu changed the contours himself, with a bulldozer. But only after months and months of pondering over what he wanted. Then came the monsoons. And it all went. “Nature has its own passage, the monsoon slashed through whatever I had created. I stood there like a devastated man. I saw a passage of water and made a pond right there. I made a bridge and retainer walls. Now there are water birds, ducks. Nature taught me that you have to follow her dictates.”

If you ask Raghu who inspired him, the reply does not come pat: he has no gurus. “Very few create that spark, and that spark is also connected with your own inner journey and experiences you have been through and have nudged you into new awareness and some dreams which are complete or unfulfilled. The spark can be in a patch of cloud, in the hint of a smile or in somebody’s eyes.” Music is his other source of inspiration—he sits up alone, most nights and listens to Indian classical music. “Each raag has its own notes, when it is refined and it takes off to another level of experience I can see it. For me it becomes a piece of music when it becomes visual.”

But he does have a short list of photographers he admires, which includes Josef Koudelka, Arthur Tress and Robert Frank, and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson, a friend. He also likes some images of the late Raghubir Singh (his big rival once upon a time for the status as India’s best known photographer), even though he feels that Singh was too strongly influenced by Western style of photography: “Trends and styles were so important for him…he was too much into image-making.”

Inspiration, though, is not a good word in Raghu’s vocabulary, especially when it’s applied to photography. It can be a dangerous thing according to him. His advice to young photographers: go ahead and click when you come across a Cartier-Bresson moment. But don’t print it. Just get it out of your system. “Let’s take Bresson’s image. Say you see the same form, what do you do? You don’t want to become a Bresson—that information is already there, it belongs to somebody… It’s what awakening they have done. You have to evolve.”

What he admires about Bresson is his ability to be where momentous events are happening and to go beyond just recording them. “He had a vision, he caught the spirit of it all while other photographers gave mere records of what was happening during our independence…His photograph of Nehru, Edwina and Lord Mountbatten says it all. You can write anything, but it is never as convincing. Mountbatten is standing, looking out of the window, Edwina is talking to Nehru and he is looking at her, and both are laughing. It is an unbelievable image. Such great communication. And at Gandhi’s funeral Bresson caught the multitude and their response. This is also photojournalism—and being creative at the same time.”

It’s thumbs down though for photojournalism in India these days—“by and large a hit and run attitude” according to him. Neither instinctive, nor creative. “My own journey into photojournalism consisted of instinctive moments, of powerful moments captured. Today’s politics is too slick for me.” Raghu likes to get up close and personal with his subjects, what you can no longer do so with the powerful because of security and terrorism and the dearth of photographers.

Politicians now bore him. “Politicians have become pygmies. Nehru and Gandhi jump out at you, even from the lacklustre Press Information Bureau photographs. They were men of extraordinary energy and concern… Look at our own PM today—he doesn’t even look at you—on television he looks like a dead man speaking. Where has that Atal Bihari Vajpayee gone whom we used to listen to? Has he become a prisoner of power? Nazarein hi nahin milate hain.”

It is a pity that Raghu has turned his back on the political landscape and national affairs. His black and white and Statesman days stirred the conscience of the nation in the ‘70s. His coverage of the Bangladesh war and his heart-rending images of refugees won him international acclaim. His photograph of the old and frail JP Narayan being hit on the head by one of Bansi Lal’s cops brought out the chilling reality of the Emergency. And his portrayal of sycophancy has never been bettered. Who can forget President VV Giri cringing before Indira Gandhi: like an errant schoolboy the President is holding his cap behind his back. Raghu’s photograph of Cabinet ministers and senior Congressmen fawning over Mrs. Gandhi with cocker spaniel-like devotion in their eyes is a study in chamchagiri.

The Raghu Rai Moment, MW archives

Raghu is seldom at a loss for words. But when it comes to talking about Indian photographers he suddenly becomes coy. Perhaps, the thin skins that many photographers and most artists sport may have something to do with his new-found diplomacy. Raghu had mildly criticised a photographer for being derivative. A highly exaggerated version of his comments found its way to this photographer, who is now carving a niche overseas, and she started badmouthing him.

Raghu sees promise in some of the younger photographers like Gauri Gill. He also concedes that a lot of “smart work” is being done in the country. However, he does not see much vision behind much of the photography. Nor does he see many photographers relying on their instincts. Intellect is not a nice word in his dictionary. “It can get in the way of a good picture. Being educated is not enough. There may be an enlightened heavyweight champion sitting in your head—you have to get rid of that guy. When I was doing the final stages of my book on the Taj, I thought that there were some aspects missing. Each time I would go to Agra with ideas in my mind I would be disappointed: nature had something quite different to offer and my mind was looking for something else. What nature has for you is something fresh and new, not what’s going on in your bloody mind.”

Raghu is not that generous about today’s picture editors. “They have no control, they are Photo editors for namesake. We used to do the headlines and cover design.” Typically, a sheet with a suggested layout came along with the photographs he gave for Man’s World. It’s something he does even for the rare commercial assignment. “I must know how my photographs are going to be used, and with what kind of copy, layout, printing. I must see the end result,” he reiterates. For him photographs in news journalism “open a window in a brick work of text, which gives you a kind of feel and insight into events… And a whole visual darshan of a theme in a photo essay.”

As for women, Raghu has always attracted them like bees to a honeypot. Beauty of all kinds, and particularly a woman’s has always been a bit of a weakness for him. With his Ladhaki capes and exuberance Raghu was long a darling of the chattering classes. But these days, there is a certain cooling off. There is, he believes, no perfect woman in the world. Mother Teresa is his “most favourite woman”—“She inspired me, restored me to myself… She could hold me by my hand, look into my eyes and connect me to myself—not her and me but me and me.” He hardly socialises: “It takes time, energy and emotions…Today I can’t be dragged by any beauty in any direction. Certainly, I look at beautiful bodies, beautiful eyes, and vivacious women. Those who have tenderness or gentleness or are bombshells. Sexy bhi hai aur tender bhi hai—that is absolutely powerful. Yes, a very sexy, attractive woman inspires me but I won’t go for her. Now there is so much more to life than sexy attractive women. Good music gives me a great charge. I have seen so much variety in nature. God can be so creative, I thank God it was not my responsibility to create.”

So, we are back to music and nature. And home. “It is my landing ground. If I have to have a big take-off, I must have a good landing.”

Where?

“When June ends there are black clouds and heat rises and darkness and shadows build up. I am one intense drop in that cloud. I want to be that first drop of rain. Bhai, main tho chala. Even though the journey’s heat will absorb me. I can’t stop.”

Bon Voyage, Raghu.

 

This article was first published in the June 2001 issue

Image courtesy: Friday Corporation

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