I first met Raghu Rai over 15 years ago when I went to his office at a newspaper he was working for at the time. He looked through some of my photos I had brought him, made some comments and we talked. He wanted to know what number an ordinary skylight filter was as he was planning on changing to one of these, after using a warm-up filter for his work. I knew the answer was a 1A and told him, reflecting upon the fact that I knew more than an accomplished photographer although it mattered little; it was a stark reminder that photography was not about facts or knowledge but seeing. At that moment, I could not see very well and wondered what made Raghu Rai such a renowned photographer other than the fact that he was an established one.
With the launch of an exhibition of Ragu Rai’s in England, I find myself with a gifted copy of the exhibition catalogue that I am going to give to the Open College of the Arts. Before I do so, it seems sensible to reflect upon it. The cover is of a sadhu (holy man) looking straight into the camera with a hypnotic stare. It is not one of Raghu’s most sensitive photographs but it is attention grabbing and hence makes a good book cover; the subject of the photograph also contains a collection of people yet most are not connected with the photographer.
The catalogue contains an introduction by Niru Ratnam entitled Public Space in Raghu Rai’s Photography. A closer examination of this seems pertinent to my OCA course as well as helping me to understand what Raghu Rai’s work is about. The following text is from Niru Ratnam …
“..outdoor space in India, revealing something particular and complex about the relationship between the public sphere and the private sphere in India.”
“…public sphere of India significantly different … dissolves the easy distinction between public and private.”
“… striking ways in which Rai portrays public space – and to tease out how this is significantly different to Western modernist photographers and other Magnum photographers.”
“ … Rai captures the ordered chaos of public space in India. A profusion of activities takes place but on closer inspection this plenitude is almost choreographed by an unseen hand.” (These comments are made about an older photograph from 1964 called Traffic at Chawri Bazaar, Delhi).
“If we fast-forward forty years to Rai’s recent work, “A Bazaar, Old Delhi” (2006) it becomes clear that the street is still a shared space.”
“In this “three-speed” image (there are three different layers to this photograph visible in a sleeping man, traffic passing and shops in the background), Rai seems to convey the heterogeneity of activity going on.”
“… we can’t simply use terms such as “public space” and “private space” from a Eurocentric perspective.”
“The public spaces that Rai investigates seems to be more layered and more multi-valent …”
“… the large-scale communal religious ritual is a common feature that takes place that takes place within the Indian landscape and that Rai has returned to photographing over the years.”
“… a distinction between the individual and the crowd; a suggestion that in these public displays of group identity, the individual can break away for time apart if they should so wish.”
“The men sit and wait but somehow by doing this they seem communally joined. They do not seem like the atomized individual that is such a popular trope in Western Modernism.”
“Whilst in the West the religious ritual is almost wholly imagined inside public buildings such as the church or the cathedral, Rai’s work shows that Indian religious ritual is rooted in the landscape.”
“… the idea of public space acting as a stage is present in all of these works .. “
“The idea of stage is heightened by the way Rai captures individuals going about activities that co-opt outdoor public space for some sort of individual or communal function.”
“In a series of recent works made in 2010 Rai has taken this idea of the stage one step further by asking subjects to stand in front of painted backdrops.”
“What is Rai suggesting here? I think that this series suggests that it is impossible to demarcate the boundary between the “real” and the “staged” in documentary photography; the click of a camera produces the stage whether the subjects of the photograph know it or not.”
“… makes us question what exactly is public and what exactly is private; and what is the nature of these everyday acts that we stage in public spaces fr the benefit of ourselves and for the benefit of others.”
Having faithfully recorded some of Niru Ratnam’s comments in an attempt to better understand Raghu Rai’s work, I feel I can also note the way I understand Rai’s work after having looked at it over the years. Firstly, I see it as very informative of a country, India, which is often liked by the outside world but not very well understood. Its’ not just that Raghu Rai’s photographs are extremely well constructed and composed in a way that may delight the eye, their subject matter is also fascinating and meanings at first not apparent might be discovered later. For me then, the appeal of his work is more than just the excellent photography for his images are as much documents as works of art.