Ace photographer Raghu Rai, whose latest compilation The Indians focuses on people and the evolution of portraiture in India, talks about how certain special portraits were taken.

“A creative photographer is one who either captures mystery or reveals things; everything else is useless,” said Raghu Rai when asked what qualities a good photographer should have. In his latest compilation in portraits, The Indians published by Penguin, Rai has captured that same mystery, revealed those same secrets, discovered the power of personality as embodied in a sideways glance, a soft smile, a knife-sharp jaw line. The book is a record of imagery, of history captured through a camera lens, not just by Rai himself, but by a group of distinguished photographers and some whose names have never been known. It is divided into two sections – the first a selection of pictures by 19th and early 20th century photographers in India of the ilk of Raja Deen Dayal, Bourne and Shepherd and Johnston and Hoffman and, the second, Rai's own work from over 40 years of exploring the world of the still camera. These portraits tell a story of empathy, of creativity, of a time and place that seems almost otherworldly today, the pomp and splendour of royalty, the grandeur of ancient palaces, the gentle cadence of a language spoken with the eyes rather than the tongue.

Emotional bond

Rai's advice to non-professional photographers is to “begin clicking portraits as it teaches them to connect with emotions better than juggling between doing overambitious pictures”. He adds, “If your mind is not connected to what you are shooting, you are not a good photographer.” From the collection in this new book, not only is the mind of the photographer connected to the subjects', but that emotional bond is lifted off the static page and into the mind and soul of the reader, the person who turns page after page and is absorbed into the lives of the faces he or she may look at. Putting them all together in one volume took many years and a great deal of thought and, more, introspection, Rai says. There were “many institutions organisations and people who collect old photos – such as the British Library, which has treasures from the countries that the Raj ruled; the Alkazi collection, as well as a number of others; there have been exhibitions and books on these too.”

But it has become a case of almost overkill too, since “With so many books available, I was getting bored – creativity is the first criterion for me... after all, and if the image is old and creative it has strength, a special power. Because I was bored with all that I had been seeing all these years, I decided to get into collecting pictures myself.” It started with Rai “buying pictures wherever and whenever I could. I would travel and look for pictures everywhere I went. Gradually I discovered that I had collected so much material and, in today's digital technology age, when you scan everything, new things start taking shape.”

What did take shape was a new sense of excitement, a new exploration of the world of faces, old and new, with added value from Rai's own work that had also been scanned. “While looking at my own old portraits, a friend sitting with me said that I had my own style and collection, and that I should do my own book.” The spark was lit, the fire started. Rai “started looking at old works and some of my own and I discovered that they were coming along very well. I sent the creative director of the British Library in London a first draft; that was about two-and-a-half years ago. He had the knowledge to judge and I wanted to know what he thought of it. His first response was that it looked great, but the first section needed more work.” Editing, re-editing and yet more revision was called for, until finally Rai decided that it worked. “This is the sixth draft; he has not even seen it yet!” When the editors at Penguin saw it, “Bina Sareen, who looks at every image carefully and understands it, was very encouraging.” And the concept of the book became reality.

But the process was not as easy as clumping together images and adding some text as binder. Rai explains, “When a photo is 150 years old, it does not mean that it is of great archival value, unless the subject matter or the aspect of life or the portraits that the photographers have done is powerful.” By sheer virtue of age, it does not mean every image is valuable for me.” But the cachet of antiquity, however recent, is invaluable. “In the old days, it was old cameras, old film, slow film, a slow process, so you needed time and a lot of patience to take one picture. You to almost rivet people to their chairs, since the exposure was longer, the camera was open to the person for a more extended period. With this technical limitation – or perhaps because of it - their eyes showed so many emotions coming and going. In the old portraits, the eyes were very strong and stunning.” This was one of the primary aspects of the portraits that made most sense to Rai.

And there was more, in the sheer innovativeness shown by those early photographers. For instance, “The first double spread (in the book) of the different princes of India taken in 1910, is actually a collage of individual portraits” stuck together against a common background of a majestic palace. Another favourite he cites is the portrait of an entire Parsi community during a Navjyot ceremony; it shows such patience and control, with each individual carefully positioned and dressed in traditional clothing. “The original was tiny, just two inches by four inches; we have restored it and blown it up to two pages. My idea is to have a big exhibition of these photos – we could make a six-foot long print and right next to it we could place the original to show off the scale and quality of the work done. Each one of these shows off the imagination and creative ideas that the photographer of that time had.”

Some portraits have interesting effects; for instance, lithographs combined with painting and photography, or miniature paintings with photographic faces. One of Rai's favourites is the triple-set of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi “as a barrister, as a satyagrahi, then as the Mahatma, a transformation into three different personalities.” It is with this amazing creative variety and imaginative flair that the project was conceived. “The book was planned in that direction, making a definitive statement about portraiture and the habits of the times. I did it this way because I was tired of seeing other pictures and books, with the same old treatment. I felt a sense of responsibility to do something new and creative, because that is what I am: a creative photographer.”

Famous images

Rai's own work includes some images of strangers, ordinary people living ordinary lives, but their eyes telling stories of extraordinary souls. “My house was being painted and every day some new people would turn up; simple, wonderful human beings. The experience of watching them was so overpowering, a powerful feeling. So I made them pose and I took the pictures.” And then there are the more famous images, or Indira Gandhi, of Satyajit Ray, of MS Subbulakshmi. Rai says that “The politicians are part of my journalistic work. I am especially connected to the great masters of Indian classical music, with their stylised and special expressions; look at the great Bismillah Khan; he is looking up and still inwards, his head almost like a monument! He seems to be looking into himself with a smile…music transforms him into someone extraordinary.”

During a shoot of “Ghare Bhaire”, Rai saw Satyajit Ray sitting by himself on a bed, re-creating the sequence he is going to shoot. “The lighting looked very dramatic. I called to him and he turned to me and the picture happened. And then there is the image of Alkazi at Arles, watching a photo show; I asked him to turn around and he made some very funny remarks about me; he was a very funny guy!”

Call it a career or a matter of thoroughly enjoying work. Raghu Rai knows just how to do it. “I had lots of fun with these situations,” he remembers.