“Sometimes a thousand words is a lot of noise…
my photographs instill silence”
says Raghu Rai, one of India’s most iconic photographers, who strongly believes in an almost divine revelation that unfolds in front of him like a vision, leading him to see what he does through the camera.
Smita Dwivedi of AABP got a chance to interact with the busy octogenarian Raghu Rai at his Mehrauli Studio, housing hundreds of books, numerous portraits, several prestigious awards, and rushing vibes to accomplish a lot. Here, he lovingly shares interesting stories and anecdotes, spanning from his early days as a photojournalist to his recent childlike persona during the pandemic.
Well begun is half done…
His first book titled, ‘A Day in the Life of Indira Gandhi’ was published by Nachiketa Publications in 1974, which was a huge success. “When I started my career, Mrs. Gandhi was very powerful. Every day, I used to photograph her at some event, session, or conference. That was a time when leaders understood artists and the aesthetics that they wanted to employ to make a photographic portrait. My first editor at The Statesman newspaper Desmond Doig was a marvelous man. He saw my pictures and appreciated my work. It was him, who suggested me to do a book on the then PM Indira Gandhi. He was also doing a weekly Artist’s Impressions series that captured Calcutta’s fast-vanishing old buildings and monuments before they disappeared forever. He actually knew the importance of photo history,” he recalls.
Meeting Mother once….was a lifelong relationship!
Another book, which is close to his heart, is the pictorial biography of Mother Teresa. He photographed her for over four decades and put together some of his most iconic pictures of her. “My first meeting with Mother Teresa was in the 1970s for a feature story for Junior Statesman. Again it was Doig, who thought we should publish a book on her so I went on to take pictures of her. Later, I wanted to do my own book of pictures of her. Being male and non-Christian, I was apprehensive but I was mesmerised by her pious persona. She was not fond of photographers taking pictures all over the place. But I was keen to be around her. She said “I will do my prayers and let you know”… very instinctively I said “Mother I have done my prayers and the answer is yes” and in that case, she said ‘yes we will do it’… it showed how much she believed in prayer, and treated everyone’s prayers with the same dignity.”
Blessed to be the chosen one…
Rai also did books on Dalai Lama, Sadhguru, Nirmal Guru Ji (his own Guru), Satyajit Ray, and many more. He smiled with glitter in his eyes and said, I have so many stories, let me share just a few.
Framing the living Guru…
“Sadhguru is the most original and refreshing thinker I have met in my life. I spent about 15 days with him making the book on him, and it took me another two months to edit the 180 pages.
Jai Guru Ji
“I always expressed my love for Guruji through my photography. I captured images of Guruji that delight the eyes of those who have seen him and have been there during those priceless moments.
Those who haven’t seen him get immersed in the divinity of each image that Guruji’s presence reflected and wonder what he was like in the physical form. They connect to the photograph because the image has captured the holy spirit”.
Manik Da…my dadu
“My book on Satyajit Ray was completed in two days. I had managed to capture Dadu in different situations, moods, and expressions. I compiled my best photographs of Satyajit Ray, the film director, scriptwriter, music composer, illustrator, and the gem of a person in the book. The two days I spent with him are always fresh in my mind, and not even for a moment did he give me the impression that he was busy or important. He just made himself available to me. I was fortunate enough to convince him to step out on the streets of Calcutta and photographed him against the backdrop of the river Hooghly, glancing at the immersion of the Durga idols and laughing with children on the banks. I got all those special moments when he was relaxed and in a very different frame of mind. The book is an intimate tribute to the filmmaker,” tells Rai.
It’s always my way with publishers’
“I have worked with so many renowned international and Indian Publishers: Lustre Press, Oxford University Press – India/UK, Harper Collins, Niyogi Books, Roli Books, Penguin Books, Om Books, etc. to name a few, but none of them ever tried to dictate me. I have great working experiences with all my publishers. I am a strong-headed person, who is the toughest critic of my work,” he acclaims.
I was reborn as a photographer with digital technology
“In 2003, while on an assignment for Geo Magazine in Bombay City, I switched to a digital camera, and from that moment, I haven’t been able to go back to using film. Thanks to digital technology, I’ve managed to catalogue and segregate my work of 55 years. I’ve managed to publish three to four books a year, in the past couple of years, and there are many more to come. If I don’t like something I shot thirty years ago, I edit that out, or try to revisit the shoot and then include it in whatever work I need to,” he shares.
Be more instinctive than knowledgeable…
“The only book I have studied and continued to read is that of life and nature which doesn’t begin from anywhere and doesn’t end anywhere because it’s ever-changing and challenging.
I connect, study and then photograph. First-hand experience is the biggest book, but also good authors’ books enrich our experience,” tells Rai.
“With 55 years in extensive photography, my alertness and perceiving power are so sharp that I pick up things instantly and I only do a book when I am enriched and fulfilled about the subject. I never set a deadline, but I can do a book in 2-3 weeks,” he adds.
Working together with Gurmeet Rai…marrying photographs with the text
“The book titled Amritsar – A City in Remembrance, published by Om Books International was the first time we worked together. My wife Gurmeet got to know the city while working on the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs project called HRIDAY from 2015 to 2019. She chose to make her writing debut with a coffee table book rather than a novel as she needed to display images of the city. I developed a long and deep connection with Amritsar, visiting twice a month to take pictures. Going to the Golden Temple is one of the most powerful spiritual experiences. She did extensive research on Sri Harimandir Sahib, the Rambagh garden, and the Gobindgarh Fort, and I was asked to shuffle my 50 years of work to bring the best pictures for the book,” he shares.
“Presently, we are working on our next book on Ajanta Ellora caves. She did a project and prepared a concept for ASI. My books are now becoming investigative and research-based,” he adds.
Dealing with Pandemic…in a great way
“During the last two years of the pandemic and lockdowns, I have finished 11 books, which are ready for print. My forthcoming books are on Monsoon, Abstractions in Photography, Photo Autobiography, and Mahabalipuram to name a few,” tells Rai.
On a concluding note…I have no regrets
The divine gifts that I get are real moments of exploration and discovery for me. For me, life is all about awakening. I have done so much work for my countrymen that coming generations will find the visual history very meaningful. History is written and can be rewritten, but photo history can never be rewritten. I have lived through a photo history of my times. Instinctive divine moments can’t be negotiable,” concludes Rai.
Raghu Rai is a qualified civil engineer who started photography at the age of 23. He is the recipient of the highest civilian Indian honour‘Padmashree’ in 1972 for his work on the Bangladesh War. He became the first laureate to win the Academie des Beaux-Arts Photography Award in 2019.Rai has specialised in extensive coverage of India. He has produced more than 60 books, including Raghu Rai’s Delhi, The Sikhs, Calcutta, Khajuraho, Taj Mahal, Tibet in Exile, India, and Mother Teresa. His photo essays have appeared in many magazines and newspapers including Time, Life, GEO, The New York Times, Sunday Times, Newsweek, The Independent, and the New Yorker