interview Photographer Raghu Rai holds his first-ever exhibition in Chennai. He speaks to baradwaj rangan on dancing boulders and the multiplicity of moments
Aquintet of priests in Tirupathi, foreheads slathered with religious markings, rests under a Garuda with soaring wings and clasped hands. Nearby, a joyous family, adults and children, hold hands in Kanyakumari, a human chain on the brink of the shore. The photographs of these nameless subjects, these earth-bound nobodies, hang alongside portraits of stars such as MS Subbulakshmi and Hariprasad Chaurasia, Jiddu Krishnamurti and Maqbool Fida Husain. At least within the confines of Apparao Galleries, Chennai, everyone is equal — and that's the theme of this exhibition of Raghu Rai's work.
“They are all Indians,” he says. “Everyone matters.” Rai has been to Chennai many times — to freeze the artistic exertions of M.S. Subbulakshmi, Chandralekha, S. Balachander and Balamuralikrishna — but this, unbelievably, is his first show in the city.
Why has it taken so long? Rai says, without really answering the question, there are more galleries now, and more people are interested.
“But not deeply,” he says. “They just glance through the pictures.” To really see a photograph, he advocates what sounds like advice borrowed from a lab technician scrutinising a blood sample.
“You have to look at every inch of space, every element. You have to see how form and texture come together.” That's what he does while taking his famed photographs. He scans every inch of space in front of him, and then something, an instinct, taps him on the shoulder and says, “Hey.” To hear that “hey”, he has to be ready “mentally and physically and spiritually”.
This is especially important in capturing images of India, because “so much has been covered. The challenge is finding a new way to show it. But if you are patient, then Nature will give you something”. He likes to talk about a supreme energy — or should that be Supreme Energy? — that makes a creative person surrender to the possibilities before him.
Nature has so many magical treasures, Rai says, but people don't have the patience and the sensitivity. He illustrates this contention by pointing to a photograph, above him, of S. Balachander playing the veena beside a mountainous boulder in Mahabalipuram. Behind him, we see a line of walkers, and behind them swaths of cloud torn from a theatrical sky.
“I took him there,” Rai says, and launches into an interpretation of the image that will warm the hearts of deconstructionists everywhere. “His strokes were so deep, they were like boulders dancing rhythmically in space. The four men walking behind are four notes emerging from his instrument. The clouds are witness.” When you meditate, he says, Nature gives you a gift. What matters is not the tool in your hand – digital camera, or old-fashioned film camera – but whether you're serious enough and sensitive enough.
“After all, one person uses the knife to perform surgeries, another to chop vegetables.”
Of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose encouraging eye transformed Rai in his early years, he says, “He was rich. He didn't have the responsibilities of earning money. He could fly around the world and take photographs.” This is less a long-simmering fit of petulance than an acknowledgement of the forces that shape each photographer — indeed, each creative artist.
“The early photographers,” Rai says, “were inspired by painting. Even their portraits were done painting-style.” Then came the pioneers who discovered they could grab moments on the fly. “If they weren't there, we wouldn't be here,” Rai says.
He adds, however, that for Western photographers, the ability to capture a moment is everything, and that will not do in a country like India, which is so multi-layered — multi-religious, multi-cultural, varied in terrain, and with so many centuries existing side by side. “A moment in space is just not enough. My panoramic pictures reflect a multiplicity of moments. That's what I'm capturing.”
When you meditate Nature gives you a gift. What matters is not
the tool in your hand
but whether you're serious and sensitive enough