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In the creative universe of Raghu Rai

COMBINING FOOD WITH CREATIVITY Raghu Rai at Pluck restaurant of Hotel Pullman New Delhi Aerocity  

Creativity lies in the eyes of the discerning. For Raghu Rai, the acclaimed photographer who has extensively covered socio-political landscape of India for half a century, it is the curiosity to explore the beauty and aesthetics of an imposing Qutub Minar or something as mundane as a glass holder which distinguishes him from others of his profession.

As the tall and sprightly Rai arrives at Hotel Pullman New Delhi Aerocity,he takes a few steps towards restaurant Pluck but mid way asks for the ongoing group exhibition of images on Delhi at the hotel. He meticulously examines all pictures, including the ones taken by his son Nitin Rai. It has his photographs but the excitement to appreciate fellow artists’ work is palpable.

Since the gallery is at the basement, the hotel staff asks him to use the elevator. But he politely declines and says tongue in cheek, “I think all of us are young,” before leading the way with his long brisk pace. Along the way, he appreciates that creativity has found an expression in the hotel. “Otherwise, it becomes too commercial,” he remarks.

Politely refusing mutton and opting for grilled spicy miso salmon, he reflects on his days in undivided India. “Those days we ate gosht and chicken. My mother cooked tasty vegetarian food. . Baigan ka bharta shakal dekh ke khane ka man karta tha. (She would make brinjal look so appealing that one felt like tasting it) . One part was stuffed with onion; the other part with tomato with butter on top. She would cook onions without burning them. Tomato would be made in a way that it didn’t lose its colour. She would cook brinjalin tandoor and later peel off its skin. Wah maa ki kya bat hai!” he exclaims .

Routine stuff sans creativity does not excite him. “My father wanted me to become a civil engineer. As an engineer I was doing a 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. government job but after two years got bored. Then by chance I started taking pictures and London Times published my picture of a baby donkey in Haryana. It was looking cute,” says Mr. Rai, who mentors the Raghu Rai Center for Photography.

Our conversation veers away from his parents, who hailed from East Punjab, to his maiden visit to Pakistan. “My first visit to Pakistan was when A.B. Vajpayee was the External Affairs Minister. A delegation of 15 writers, I being the only photographer, accompanied him. President Zia-ul-Haq was the boss and was very careful about his image. He was so smart that while we were being introduced he asked each one of us where we were born. When my turn came he asked the same question. I said I am from Jhang. Would you like to visit, he asked. I would love to, I replied.”

Next day, the Presidential car was waiting outside his hotel. “KK Katyal of The Hindu also went as he too was also from Jhang. And there was my close friend Syed Naqvi; who told me Main tere sath chalta hu and dekhta hoon tu Jhang mein kya karta hai.”

At Jhang, Rai went looking for his house but to no avail. “I had vague memories but no address as I was only four when my family left Pakistan. Unfortunately, my parents had passed away by then. People were very warm all around. I couldn’t find my house found the food relishing. We were in Lahore for three days and I had plateful of kebabs and tikkas. Un dino main sabh kuch khata tha. (Those days I would eat everything)”

As he rejoices his fin-less fish, he reminisces his days in the Bangladesh war, where he would occasionally taste fish and dodge bullets most of the time.

“The priority was to do our job first and keep ourselves safe. Once we got stuck; on one side was the Pakistani Army and the other side the Indian Army. Heavy shelling was being done from the Pakistan’s side. Pakistanis were withdrawing but knew the terrain, while the Indian side was moving ahead but was unfamiliar with terrain. We got refuge in a chai shop; the owner offered dal, chawal and small fish.”

Tea became a saviour for him and is now a regular feature of his daily life. “I start my day with Indian classical music and then I have tulsi ke patte, anar to make a base for my tea. And then I have tea in my ritualistic manner.”

News photographers are mostly on assignments and eat anything which they can lay their hands on. “On street there is no nakhra. At times we would stop in villages to eat dal, chawal, onion and achar. In South while travelling on the coast of Cauvery we came across a tribal area. Locals had domesticated desi chicken there. They marinated the bird and placed it on freshly cut bamboo and cooked it in barbecue style. I had to eat that day as it was very desi and fresh.”

Recounting his daily routine, Rai says he starts off his day with yogic asana alom vilom. and looks forward to his cheese tomato omelette. “It is made with cucumber, lentils and a glass of cold coffee. I have two egg omelette, one with yoke as the taste is important. I make my own choices.”

On his message for budding photographers, Rai says creativity has to be found in the cultural heritage and vastness of India. “That should be the underline of any good picture. If you train young minds they pick up things very fast. We have to ignite the creative fire in them.”

Earlier, photography was all about understanding the real process. Now everybody from teenagers to grandpappas are taking pictures without understanding the process. Isn’t that contrived or artificial?

“Photography has become more democratic now. Every cellphone has a camera so everyone is taking thousands of pictures. Millions of pictures are bombarded on Instagram. Mostly they are the same colourful ones of close family types but some are doing really good work. We now have more photographers and galleries.” Our conversation ends on a sweet note with a modern version of rasmalai for him and chocolate mousse for me.


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 2:51:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/In-the-creative-universe-of-Raghu-Rai/article16441792.ece

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