"Situations such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and people such as Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi and the Dalai Lama were so powerful, but what's difficult to shoot is the ordinariness of daily lives," says Padma Shri awardee Raghu Rai
It's kind of weird. “Sir, a little to your left. You aren't looking into the camera…please sir…” I look elsewhere to hide my amusement as our photographer asks legendary lensman Raghu Rai to pose. And Rai, aware of what the man behind the camera is looking for, happily obliges.
His modesty can be attributed to the fact that he doesn't believe in “nostalgic nonsense”. Whether it was his iconic image of a boy buried with just his blinded stark eyes visible, taken during the Bhopal gas tragedy, or his magnificent shot of Mother Teresa with closed eyes and hands folded in prayer, or other such examples of fine craftsmanship, the world has sat up and taken notice. Rai humbly says that time is gone. “If you start dwelling on that, it becomes boring. And if you keep talking about it, people will say ‘Arre kitna bolta hai' [How much he talks]. What intensity and magic one is working with today is more important.”
Sixty-eight-year-old Rai even deflects the credit from himself for producing such powerful imagery. “Situations such as the Bhopal gas tragedy and people such as Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi and the Dalai Lama were so powerful, but what's difficult to shoot is the ordinariness of daily lives.”
A free mind
Incidentally, Rai's first-ever photograph, which he took in the 1960s, presented a slice of ordinary life. The picture of a sweet innocent baby donkey got him a half-page display in The Times, London. “I took it out of sheer feeling. At that time, I didn't have the liability of taking a good picture. That's why I ask a lot of youngsters who want to pursue photography if their parents can afford to support them during the initial years, so that they can shoot with a free mind. And once their base is strong they can excel anywhere. In fields such as medicine, engineering too, you invest certain time before you start earning,” points out the artist, who has been bestowed with the Padma Shri.
Rai studied to become a civil engineer and even worked with the Department of Irrigation for a year. Then, the ‘donkey picture' happened, and in 1965, he took up photography full-time. In a career spanning more than four decades, Rai was witness to many events and personalities crucial to the history of the country.
He churned out significant work on the Bhopal gas disaster, a series on Mother Teresa and the Sikh community, among others. Impressed by his craft, Henri-Cartier Bresson suggested his name to the international photo agency Magnum, which he eventually joined. Asked if Cartier-Bresson influenced his worked, he responds: “You like many photographers' work, but when you take pictures, nobody else should exist for you. Creativity is a kind of journey where you have to explore things your own way.”
Though the photojournalist is still an associate of Magnum photos, he says he doesn't attend meetings because of his reserved nature.
This part of his personality comes into play even when he is taking photographs. “I don't carry a huge camera bag but just a camera and one zoom lens. Since I don't like to be noticed, I wear very simple clothes and start taking images only after spending some time at the spot.”
A good image, he says, is produced when the mind, body and spirit work in sync. Likening it to yoga, Rai says the final result should be “one entity, strong and powerful”. “Of course, it is not easy to achieve; otherwise, I would have been the world's best photographer, but yes, I was always conscious of working towards it,” adds Rai, currently working on a book called The Indians: 150 Years of Portraiture in India, to be published by Penguin.
Book of portraits
The book will have images from Rai's collection of rare portraits dating back to the period from 1855 to 1965, and photographs of personalities such as J. Krishnamurti, Morarji Desai, R.K. Laxman and Arundhati Roy. It will add to the long list of more than 18 books he has penned, such as Delhi, The Sikhs, Khajuraho and Tibet In Exile.
Earlier this year, he released India's Great Masters, which contains his work on legendary artistes such as Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Ustad Vilayat Khan, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Kishori Amonkar. “My only dream was to become a musician. And, I started going to concerts soon after I plunged into journalism. I photographed these people and loved the fact that somebody such as Bhimsen Joshi would sing a raga just for me. At home, in my car, I am always listening to music. That dream didn't remain unfulfilled.”