Monday, 8 April 2013

one of my all time favorite stories: Raghu Rai (Deccan Herald, Feb 2011)

Zooming in on Raghu Rai

Raghu Rai has, over four decades, captured India in its many moods and expressions. JUANITA KAKOTY catches up with this legend and his thoughts behind his classic shots.
ENCHANTING  Cover of Raghu Rai’s latest book, ‘Varanasi:  Portrait of a  Civilisation’.I always thought that a good photograph was about telling a story, until I heard the great master. Leafing through the pages of an unbound printed copy of his soon-to-be-released Varanasi: Portrait of a Civilization by Harper Collins, ace photographer Raghu Rai mused, “Photographs are not about telling stories, but about capturing energies; about recreating the inner experience of any given situation”. He likened a photograph to a movie which is deep and sensitive, “It’s like coming back and not analysing it, but enriching through the silence that it restores”. And over the decades, this is precisely what his photography has done — captured subtle details that energise a frame, connected people to inner experiences, and restored silence through brilliance.

Raghu Rai has, over four decades, captured India in its many moods and expressions. “You know I shoot primarily in India. If I produce enough work on my own country, I will be more satisfied than flirting around everywhere. It is the traditional India, where so many generations have learnt to live side by side, where I like to invest most of my time. There are layers and layers to be dug up here.” Rai has, so far, published more than 30 books on India and the sheer range of his work is prodigious. Each book is a delight, not only for connoisseurs, but for sociologists and historians as well.

Mystical: Woman in Delhi doing namaz.While still holding the book on Varanasi, Rai reflected, “With the arrival of digital technology, I am reborn. It gives one much better quality than the film; and also allows greater control and freedom. For instance, one can shoot in the middle of the night and still produce natural colours with the help of photoshop”. As I nod in agreement, he further espoused photoshop by pinpointing a small detail, “All colour films exaggerate the colour; so does a digital camera. But with photoshop, you can bring it closer to reality.” 

His current projects, in fact, have emerged out of this technology boon. “I started taking pictures in 1965. We were shooting negatives then; and when colour came, we were shooting transparencies and negatives. But many of these did not see the light of the day. Now, I am taking out old transparencies and negatives, which have the ability to stay alive in today’s mind, and getting them scanned. This is how, in the last few weeks, I have been able to come up with three books — The Indians: Portraits by My Album, produced by Penguin, one on Mumbai by Om Shanti Books Institution, and,” he said holding up the book in his hands, “this — Varanasi: Portrait of a Civilization, by Harper Collins.”  Before the end of this year, Raghu Rai expects to come up with three more books. “Such is the magic of digital technology,” he smiled.

Recognised the world over for his prolific contribution, Raghu Rai has been awarded with several national and international honours, like the Padmashree in 1971 and the Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 2008. The Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris holds 25 of his photographs in permanent collection. He has been a jury member of the World Press Photo three times and has been a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos ever since he was nominated by the great Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1977. His photographs have appeared in leading international dailies and magazines. And to think of it, Rai had almost not become a photographer!

Lucky bull in a shopRaghu Rai had trained in civil engineering, the sought after ticket, especially in those days, to prestige and honour for the Indian middle class family. But destiny changed when he chased a donkey with a camera in 1965. The donkey featured in the Times, London as a winning photograph; and after that, as they say, Rai created history. Yet, the first thing that struck me when I met this great man was his simplicity and warmth. Even in the way he perceives his achievements. “For me, the most important aspect in creativity is not how many awards I have won; but the ability to relate to much more at any given time with all complexities of life and nature. This is the achievement — the vision opens up.”

“Intellect has nothing to do with creativity in my case. All things in the head are second-hand information. It is the intuitive energy and responses to situations that liberates me from the physicality of things and takes my work to a much higher plane. This is what is fulfilling and liberating; and the kind of achievement most precious to me.” Rai seals his statement with reverence, “Above all, God opens up new avenues for me. I have been blessed.”   

As the evening reluctantly came to an end, the soon-to-turn septuagenarian declared, “I work with greater charge and greater energy than ever before. I still feel the passion, the madness that I had when I first started taking pictures. It’s no less even today. I go for a shoot only when I am charged.” And in a lilting second, Raghu Rai revealed what photography does to him. “I am like a little boy then, not interested in anything else but to connect, inhale and grab. Like the moments when I dance and sing on the streets. Just like that.”

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