Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Raghu Rai

It would be a cliché to say that Raghu Rai's photographs speak a thousand words. Words fall short. Case in point, the picture on the cover of this issue. How does one describe the unanimity of the two sets of hands despite the pronounced difference in textures, the disproportion of scale or for that matter, the unstated generational gap? The picture is called 'My Father and My Son'.

Raghu Rai is considered the foremost photographer in India excelling in social, political and cultural themes. Currently working on books on Delhi, Varanasi and legends of Indian music, Raghu Rai spoke to us from Kohima, Nagaland, where he is attending the annual SPIC MACAY Cultural Convention.
"My father once joked that he has four children - two of them had 'gone photography' – in essence, he was saying it was akin to 'gone crazy'. But mad people are mad people and we don't listen to anybody", he fondly remembers his parents' unhappiness when he followed in his brother's footsteps by becoming a photographer in 1965 despite being a qualified civil engineer.

Raghu Rai joined the newspaper, The Statesman as their Chief Photographer in 1966, then took on the mantle of Picture Editor with Sunday, a weekly news magazine in 1977. He joined India Today, now one of India's leading news magazines in 1982 until 1991. His photo features have appeared in the world's leading magazines and newspapers including Time, Life, GEO, The New York Times, Sunday Times, Newsweek, Vogue, GQ, D magazine, Marie Claire, The Independent and The New Yorker. He is revered as the man who brought aesthetics to photojournalism in India.

In 1984, Raghu Rai documented the plight of those affected by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. He says, "There was a high possibility of journalists and photographers being physically affected by the chemical contamination. But then, there is always an element of risk in any assignment." In 2002, he returned to Bhopal to capture the continuing effects of a tragedy that occurred almost twenty years ago, thereby creating greater awareness about it.

Since 1991, Raghu Rai has traveled extensively, and produced over twenty books on his favourite subject, India. He has focused on communities like the Sikhs, places like Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar as well as chronicled the Tibetan people in exile. He is also renowned for his photo essays on Mother Theresa, former Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and several classical music stalwarts such as Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Kishori Amonkar. Every portrait is as though a moment from the subject's life has been captured for posterity.

A significant bulk of Raghu Rai's photography is in the Black & White medium. This harkens back to the time when he began his career. "For one, the magazines and newspapers carried only black and white. Colour film was hard to come by and hence, expensive. Moreover, in order to process colour, one had to send the films to Paris or New York. Gradually around the late 1970s and early 1980s, colour films started being processed in Mumbai and newspapers and magazines began using some colour. " His finesse with colour is evident in the play of colour in his compositions, be it the Indian bride getting a prenuptial anointing of vibrant turmeric, the buoyant colour of balloon sellers' wares at dusk on Mumbai's Chowpatty Beach or the somber maroon-ochre of Buddhist Lamas' robes as they huddle against the rain during a prayer meeting in Ladakh.

In 1971, no less a legend than the photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson nominated Raghu Rai to the eminent photographers' cooperative, Magnum Photos. Raghu Rai was conferred the Padmashree, one of the highest civilian honours in India in 1972. There have been numerous prestigious awards since, both national and international.

Raghu Rai differentiates the Indian and international outlooks on photography, "Abroad, photography and photographers are respected a great deal. In India, few people actually read a photograph. Most people glance at a picture and think they know what is being conveyed. However, those who understand art are able to understand what goes into taking a photograph."

In Raghu Rai's photographs, there is reverence, irony and poignancy along with a great sense of intrigue on what happened after the picture was taken.
    • Bihar shows the way ( 1977)
    • Raghu Rai's Delhi(1985, 1992),
    • The Sikhs (1984, 2002),
    • Calcutta (1989),
    • Khajuraho (1991),
    • Taj Mahal, (1986)
    • Tibet in Exile (1991),
    • India (1985)
    • Madhya Pradesh (2000)
    • Indira Gandhi (1971, 1985)
    • Indira Gandhi – A living legacy (2004)
    • Mother Teresa – Faith & Compassion (1971, 1996)
    • Mother Teresa - A life of dedication (2004)
    • Men Metal and Steel (1998)
    • Lakshadweep (1996)
    • My land and it's people (1995)
    • India notes (2005) curated by Magnum Photos,
    • Raghu Rai's India – Reflections in Black & White (2007)
    • Raghu Rai's India – Reflections in Colour (2008)
2005 India - Musei Capitolini Centrale Montemartini, Rome, Italy
2005 Bhopal 1984 – 2004 - Melkweg Gallery, Amsterdam, Netherlands
2004 Exposure - Drik Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Leica Gallery,
Prague, Czech Republic
2003 Exposure: Portrait of a Corporate Crime - University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA
2003 Bhopal - Sala Consiliare, Venice, Italy; Photographic Gallery, Helsinki, Finland
2002 Volkart Foundation, Winterthur, Switzerland
2002 Raghu Rai's India - A Retrospective – Photofusion, London, UK
1997 Retrospective - National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, India
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France

(An edited version was published in the July 2008 issue of 'At A Glance'. Picture courtesy Raghu Rai)

1 comment:

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