The term “master photographer’ is open to abuse and although it is not a term I really like to use, it is not easy to find a word to describe someone such as Raghu Rai, an Indian photographer of international repute. Photography maybe American but when one comes across it in a place like India, it is certain to be worthy of interest at the very least. Raghu Rai knew Henri Cartier-Bresson well so it is not as though his work is just Indian yet his subject matter often is; I know of no one who describes the country and its’ people so well, who seems able to squeeze out the essence of its’ meaning.
Unbelievably, I manage to arrive almost half an hour late for our meeting. This is largely my fault as in spite of the traffic and my driver needing to carry out an errand en route, it took me too long to pack my bags for the flight I was about to take. This had to be done judiciously so that I would not have to pay too much extra in luggage charges.
When I arrive, slightly breathless having jogged up to Raghu’s fourth floor office in Merauli, a suburb of southern Delhi, he is not there so I sit for awhile, scanning the books on his shelf, eventually picking up a volume he once did on the Taj Mahal where I had been the day before. His images, made in the days of slide film, are atmospheric, the Taj looming out of the morning mist, seen from across the river or from the top of a nearby building; it may be that he used a helicopter for some images. There is one image though that echoes the kind of image I strive for, that of two people with the Taj Mahal as their backdrop. Here, one man is gesturing to the other as if in the depth of some debate or in the act of making a philosophical point; this echoes the guru-sila or teacher-student relationship that is such an important part of Indian life; all this is seen against the detailed façade of the Taj Mahal dome, a backdrop which occupies at least 90% of the photograph. Another image revealing intricate architectural details, is carefully composed with one building cleverly juxtaposed behind another.
Raghu appears. “That is old stuff!” he remarks of the Taj Mahal book, suggesting it is dark and almost dingy in places and almost makes him feel uneasy to look at nowadays. A new volume on the Taj is expected from him in the near future that will be much better printed than this volume from a quarter of a century ago and will also contain new photographs. He hands me a copy of one of his latest books.
The new book is called “The Indians; 150 years of Indian Portrait Photography” and contains old photographs of which some 80% come from his private collection. These are images from a largely bygone era yet one of fascination for one sees images of people that once loomed large; the cover is of a Nautch girl (Nautch is an English corruption of the Hindi word for dance, nachan) possessed of a beauty that can only be Indian while other photographs reveal characters such as Jawahlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. The second half of the book contains images of people that Raghu has photographed personally and although some are now dead such as Mother Teresa and Srimati Indira Gandhi, there are others such as the Man Booker prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy who is very much alive. There is a good selection of people from different walks of life. The images are all in black and white except for a couple of group photographs at the end that are entirely digitally produced colour images.
One portrait makes me laugh. It is of India’s urine drinking former prime minister, Moraji Desai, who lived to be almost 100 years old. Here he stands as if looking down his nose at the photographer. These portraits are likely to resonate with the viewer in a way that depends on what the viewer thinks or knows of the person being represented. For instance, probably my favourite portrait that contains a triptych of images, is that of Jiddu Krsnamurti, an extraordinary philosopher of Indian origin, whose teaching is known around the world. He started a school called Brockwood Park in southern England that still operates as well as other learning centres throughout the world. The first two images reveal to a certain extent the virtual frustration Krsnamurti seems to have experienced in trying to communicate his teaching to others as he is seen not looking at the camera but with his hand to his face; the final full page image shows the sublime beauty of the man Krsnamurti as he beams silently at the camera. Such sublimity is also seen in the faces of the classical musicians Raghu Rai has photographed. The image of Arundhati Roy is another that catches my eye as she gazes at one from the sunlight and shadow of her room. A number of the portraits are set up with sunlight and shadow since they have been taken inside and are directly lit by window light providing an ambience that helps create an atmosphere which flash or an overhead light bulb can so easily remove.
There are photographs of musicians, the magic of their work revealed in their expressions. The cartoonist Laxman looks out at one with a deadpan expression. The book is an impressive testimony not just to Raghu’s photography yet also to Indian portrait photography if not photographic portraiture as a whole.
Raghu also talks about different bodies of work and the way exhibitions, in particular, tend to gather together a jumble of images to represent a theme or topic rather than allowing a subject to naturally arise out of a photographer’s work. Hence, there are books and magazine articles done to cover a particular topic that use photographs to illustrate the chosen theme while there are books done to illustrate a particular photographers work and it is these latter that are likely to be of more intrinsic value.
Before I leave, Raghu shows me some prints that have been lying on his desk; they are from a recent trip to Goa. One view is of people interacting with the sea; he points out the subdued use of colour that is there but not shouting at one. Had it been one of my photographs, I would probably have worked it to create a more optimised image, lifting shadows and making the whole scene more bright and breezy, in tune with what is normally considered a good image. However, for a moment Raghu invites me into his world, one of more burnished colouration, deep and sensitively passionate. He shows me an image where there seems to be too much magenta yet for Raghu it needs more yellow rather than more green to balance the magenta. The final image is of a couple of tourists on a Goan beach; the image has an asymmetrical composition that seems to mirror the awkwardness of the two women as they make their way into “Shams Shack”.
Then there is the rush to the airport. I have spent a little longer than I expected with Raghu yet a few moments with him seem more worthwhile than a flight I could catch another day if necessary. It is not easy to put into words what Raghu is saying through the medium of photography; that is something only the images can tell.