Musical journey with a camera

Meaningful moments: A blend of perfect rhythm and silent harmony.

Meaningful moments: A blend of perfect rhythm and silent harmony.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Raghu Rai


Many of his images are still clearly etched in collective memory. A freewheeling chat with ace photographer Raghu Rai.

"I cannot imagine any of my photos without an invisible musical score in the background or in the actual forms and subjects that constitute them."

HE has been in the shooting business for four decades. A real grassroots `mercenary' ready to capture the best action, he has always managed to be in the right place at the right time. He has pictured breathtaking landscapes, natural/man-made disasters, colourful festivals, extraordinary feats, wily politicians, talented artists, gifted actors, lively performers, and above all, ordinary men and women in the street; in doing so, he has touched the heart of a nation. Despite the passage of time, many of his masterly works are still clearly etched in collective memory: Indira Gandhi courting arrest on October 3, 1977; an abandoned and betrayed Jayaprakash Narayan in a Bombay hospital in his twilight years; Mrs. Gandhi's body lying in state, as a nation mourned and cities burned; frightening scenes of anti-Sikh riots; a weeping mother with her dead son in the Valley; a forceful picture of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale surrounded by gun-wielding companions at the height of the movement for Khalistan; the first public view of Amritsar's hallowed Golden Temple after Operation Blue Star; an intense portrait of Satyajit Ray, pipe in hand, resting on a movie camera... and many, many more.

Heart-wrenching images

Who could forget the iconic images of death and devastation he shot in Bhopal after the gas tragedy; the compassionate gaze of Mother Teresa with the destitute and dying; a heart-wrenching photo-feature on the unique relationship between an old, ragged, blind beggar, Nazeer Ahmed and a young, mentally retarded girl, Hira, in the heart of bustling Baroda... Raghu Rai's professional entry into photography actually happened about 40 years ago, when his brother Paul sent a picture - that of a baby donkey - shot with a very basic Agfa camera to London Times. The photo was splashed on half a page. Raghu is still quite amazed that his brother thought it worthwhile to send that picture to a foreign publication; and even more surprised with the reactions: "A London agency saw the picture and told me they'd like to use it on a greeting card. They paid me a good sum... Much later, Henri Cartier Bresson (the famous photographer who propounded the concept of `the Decisive Moment') wrote me a letter of appreciation as did Satyajit Ray."Raghu Rai is 64 but looks a good 10 years younger. His smile is warm, handshake firm, friendly and welcoming. Above all, his passion and commitment towards his art is as secure, uncompromising and infectious, as it was when he and his associates pioneered a new brand of photojournalism in the country some three decades ago. Along the way, he has exhibited in India as well as in London, Paris, New York, Hamburg, Prague, Tokyo, Zurich and Sydney and won many national and international awards and honours for his pictures. Impressed by his show in Paris in 1971, Cartier Bresson nominated him to Magnum Photos, the world's most prestigious photographers' cooperative; his association with Magnum continues to this day. Raghu, whose photo features have appeared in leading magazines and newspapers, including Time, Life, GEO, The New York Times, Sunday Times, Newsweek, The Independent and The New Yorker, has also produced top-quality books on Delhi, Calcutta, Taj Mahal, Khajuraho, Mother Teresa and others. His exhibition of photographs on Bhopal Gas Tragedy has travelled all over the world. A recipient of Padmashri in 1971, Raghu was selected in 1992 as Photographer of the Year in the United States for the story, "Human Management of Wildlife in India" published in the National Geographic.

On the move

Not one to rest on past laurels, Raghu is always on the move seeking newer and more exciting pastures. A firm believer in the power of technology, Raghu sees the latest innovations as a welcome part of his creative journey. "Today, with digital technology I know clearly what and how I have shot within seconds...There are no dark room fiascos, no indefinite waiting, and no unwanted anxieties." Viewers have often perceived a musical quality in Raghu's pictures. Even the great Bhimsen Joshi is said to have exclaimed that Raghu's photographs resounded with music. On his part, the photographer concedes: "... I cannot imagine any of my photos without an invisible musical score in the background or in the actual forms and subjects that constitute them." Remind him of that extraordinary photo-feature he did for India Today in the 1980s on Indian classical musicians, his face lights up instantly. The Great Masters series captured the soul, spirit and essence of stalwarts like Mallikarjun Mansur, Bhimsen Joshi, S. Balachander, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain and several others. If the silhouette of Chaurasia perched on a rock surrounded by rippling waves with flute on his lips was a picture of perfect rhythm and silent harmony, Joshi with his dynamic expressions was (in the words of Inderjit Badhwar) - "a bubbling lava of molten creativity and artistry ... a sunburst of musical fire'. Mansur - eyes closed, neck stretched - was the very personification of a blissful spiritual experience achieved only by the greatest of musical mystics.

Memorable picture

Remind him about that memorable picture of the veena maestro captured in the midst of majestic rocks against the backdrop of mesmerising white clouds; Raghu is delighted by the recollection. "You know, I shot the masters mostly in their own homes or during concerts," he explains. "For the veena master's image, however, I personally took him to Mahabalipuram. I knew the strong sense of sound and rhythm of his music; and I wanted that strength and power to be represented in the picture... I first learnt about him way back in 1968, when I was in London and happened to pass by a hippy shop; I was immediately struck by the intensity and dynamism of the strings, but was not sure which form of music it was (I was not well initiated to Carnatic music then). When asked, the shopkeeper too didn't know much about it but thought it was probably from `your part of the world'. She showed the sleeve of the LP and it said `S. Balachander'. From that day, I've got hooked to his music." Raghu feels that in any sphere of creative endeavour, one needs to connect with the subject and that connection normally comes from above, silently. "If you've heard singers like Kumar Gandharva or Gangubai Hangal, you'd be amazed by their ability to elevate their music to such high levels, before becoming completely silent," says Raghu. "Those moments of silence hold the very essence of the entire piece they'd be rendering, transcending time and space... I hope my photographs too hold such meaningful moments as their music did." E-mail: >

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