Photographers are not born; everyone can create, says photographer Raghu Rai whose works are on display in the city

When his photographs retain their freshness and the ageless capacity to enthral, why would photographer Raghu Rai feel aged? “When I see these pictures, I feel more alive, younger today than I did 25 years ago,” he said at the inauguration of his show of his world-acclaimed compositions at Shilpa Architects organised by Gallery Veda.

High on energy

Energy is his theme, analogy is his tool for explanation. What is special about this particular selection. “Some of those moments touched my heart, my feelings. Have you read The Old Man And The Sea? It captured the magic of ordinary life.” We see this ordinariness, and we go “Oh!” he says.

That ‘Oh’ moment comes to you startlingly in his photographs — in the pained expression of the man on the festive truck, the stance of the woman with sari covering half her face, the eyes of a horse, the palms around an iron pillar, the day before December 6, 1992 in Ayodhya. “Everyday interactions of people are precious,” he says.

He sees photography as sensitive response to others. Big events, big guys give you dramatic moments, “but not one per cent of real life”. The image you capture should reflect that energy you have; the photographer must be able to switch it on. And “the viewer, on his part, should learn to switch on his energy to appreciate it”. dharshan

How does he connect with his pictures? When you do photography, you begin on a clean slate, he says. For a creative person, first-hand experience matters. “There is a meditative moment of silence for concentration when I start taking pictures.” No, he won’t walk me around. “I won’t explain pictures,” he says. “What I felt are emotions I value. You may not react or react more strongly. The idea is to look at every inch of the photograph, it doesn’t matter whether it touches you or not.” All he will say is, “with varied experiences, we become more playful, mischievous”.

But he is happy to narrate the stories behind them. He tells of how he came across veena Balachandar’s deep music in a British shop selling Indian knick-knacks in London in 1969. “The shop-owners said ‘This is from your country’. I met Balachandar in London, told him about this, and that I wanted to picture him playing near the famous boulder at Mahabalipuram. The boulder shows energy.” We turn to the one on Mother (Puducherry). “Mother is my eternal love. She was tough, but loving and giving. The energy she carried was amazing, it was a great experience.” Pandit Ravishankar was “naughty, dedicated; lovely ladies were his inspiration”. He points to another photograph. “I saw this gate to the akhada (wrestling camp) painted with wrestlers. I pushed it, saw these men, stopped there. An intuitive response to it.” He doesn’t believe in the clichés that a picture is worth a thousand words, that it tells a story. “It is a whisper, a magic sensitivity that you hear.”

It is his day to break established notions: photographers are not born, he says. Everyone can create, people who have not graduated, have not read can do great things. “I have read only three-and-a-half books in life.” Geniuses are not born, they are made of their own guts, energy. Black and white make the best photographs, they convey silences. Take pictures, capture precious moments of togetherness, moments that “smash” you. Doesn’t matter whether they are art form or people accept them. Our ability to capture that passion, that magic in everyday life transcends time, makes photo history, he says.

Right, but the “aha” moments with Raghu Rai lie outside philosophy. When he examines a young photographer’s camera, compliments its looks to her delight; when he asks a child to light a lamp, and says, “This is a good picture”; when he tells the audience, “At the 50th anniversary meeting of the Press Council of India, Somnath Chatterjee said it was an honour to be sitting next to me. When I went home, I told my wife, “If he felt it was an honour sitting next to me for a few moments, how must you feel after all these years?”

Part of Art Chennai, the show is on till 20 March, 2014.