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A Sunday conversation with Raghu Rai

Raghu Rai needs no introduction, and I will not make the mistake of giving him one. I can however, give you the story of how this interview of his came into being.

After I had finally decided on building this space to address the needs of photography and information on and about Photography in India, the idea of also addressing the many stories of Indian photographers themselves also came to me. Indian photographers are unique, not to be found anywhere else in the world, very much like the country WE come from. We have our own, stories, views and opinions, and unfortunately there are not many places where they are expressed, especially not on the web. There are many stories about Indian photographers, and I want to bring them out in as many ways as possible through this website. One of the ways I found befitting was through casual interviews.

In my mind, there was no debate as to whom the first candidate for these conversations should be, Raghu ji or Raghu Uncle as he is so fondly called. I will not go further and give any reasons for choosing him first, as I would then be making the mistake of introducing him.

After a long, winding drive through Gurgaon and beyond, I wondered along with my father in the car, over the distance one has to cover to reach his institute (Raghu Rai Centre For Photography) which was the location for this interview. He reminded me softly later, “the journey to a meaningful destination is always lengthy.”

Upon arriving, it was soon clear to me as to why Raghu ji had chosen this place to set up his institute. It is a farm not only befitting his stature, but primarily it represents him and his love for serenity, for beauty around and also his love for gardening. From the entrance itself one can see the greenery that adorns the entire center. Plants, big and small, and trees, with extending branches greet you along the entire pathway.

We are met by his son Nitin first, he is also the Director of the institute. My father and him being friends and contemporaries exchanged many a things about the past, the present and the future as I waited for my turn.

Raghu ji entered a few minutes later, tall, endearing, with arms extended to greet. Being the ‘Bargad’ or banyan tree of Indian photography that he is, there is not even the slightest hint of age or slowness in him, there is purpose and action in his step.

He’s been gardening, evident from the mud stains on his sandals. He remains very much grounded and approachable. While there is very much grandeur about him and his being, the difference in our respective ages of 74 and 24 was not felt to me in our conversation.

 

The following are extracts from the conversation that followed and are produced as it is-

 

Being at a stage now when you can look back at the broader picture of Indian photography as a whole, how do you think it has been?

 “ Photography in India has seen a very slow growth. Initially because there were import restrictions and you could not get cameras, films etcetera as per your needs. And also because, photography was born in the west and brought up there, but surprisingly there were photographers such as Raja Deen Dayal who were doing great portraits before that also, although they were doing so more in the composition and style of the west. Indian photography by and large has been riddled with romanticism, just like Indian cinema.

But then came people like my elder brother S Paul, Raghubir Sing and Kishore Parekh and that is when the movement started to some extent. In the middle Raghubir started working for foreign magazines, Paul was working for Indian express and coming out with great pictures of sports and stories of human interest, Kishore was a very hard news photographer and did very imaginative pictures.

Unfortunately the era did not last very long, mainly as Kishore passed away, Raghubir started living abroad and working for foreign magazines, and Paul left the express and you didn’t get to see more work. That was the time when I came, between Paul and Kishore Parekh. The advantage and the disadvantage was that I was sandwiched between two great photographers; one Paul who was my brother and 11 years elder to me and Kishore who was 10 years older to me and became my very good friend. I was in the middle of both of them, so either I could get crushed in the middle or I could sprout up. That in a way was very good for me; the pressure from both of these guys.

But where do we go from there? There are no good magazines or competitions or grants etcetera still. So we remained directionless for decades after that. But let me tell you one thing very clearly, after digital technology and internet and globalisation and all of this social media and all these resources, today things are churning out. All thanks to digital technology. I am very hopeful.

The other very important thing to keep in mind is that any sort of creative journey is in a continuity. My journey personally or that of Raghubir or Dayanita and other such people has been constant, we have been continuously working and producing images.

Also, another thing, in todays world no matter what you write or paint or photograph or sing, you stand in a global context and space. Being ignorant and not being aware of what has happened, what is happening and where we are heading, as a whole is a big mistake.

Looking forward, I am very hopeful of the churning that is happening in photography, but by and large ,many years have been wasted. Agar teen- chaar logon ne kaam kiya hai toh kya aam kiya hai. It has to be a whole movement. “

 

On finding your own style and vision.

 “The important thing is that, technology has become so easy and wonderful. Now there is autofocus, auto exposure and auto colour balance, and you are there! This is from where the journey begins. You have to contextualize your self and find who you are as a photographer. This needs time and that is the only thing that youngsters don’t have, and then unfortunately they start to easy way out. There is no self exploration in Indian photography unfortunately.

The other thing is, young photographers who now who go abroad to study photography and get heavily influenced there by those styles and those trends and then the come back and inflict those same styles and those trends on another country, culture and space. This is not very nice or correct in my opinion. Work produced in India has to reflect India in every way, shape and form.

 

How do you think photography has changed you?

“ It has changed me in many ways. Not just one. Firstly, as I have said before, photography is about self-exploration. You get to find yourself when you are out photographing.

There is something else that I had realised very early when I was young- Photography is all about the instinct. What you see and how you respond to it. Especially now, with everything taken care off with technology, it is only the timing of the click and your instinct that you have to develop. You have to invest yourself mentally, physically and spiritually into the situation in front of you. Tumhari dhan daulat kya hai? (what is your total wealth?) Your body, your mind and your spirit. When you invest all off that and connect with every inch of space, you get what you are looking for. When you invest your entire wealth, you automatically get a big return on that investment.

The second thing is, nobody, no matter who you are, will give you your space on a platter. You have to fight for it every time. I had to fight with everybody. I would fight with the editors or with other photographers on location, I would sometimes even fight with the ministers and security personnel also. That is what I have been all my life, on my shoot, I couldn’t care less. Even when Paul, Kishore and I used to photograph together on the same assignment, we had that fight within ourselves. It was healthy competition, but it was tooth and nail. We would not give an inch of space to each other. The interesting thing is we would always spend the evenings eating and drinking together after assignment.Moreover, if we liked each other’s published images, we would immediately call up and tell him. It was that kind of a relationship.

This extended even to our editors who would wait eagerly to see what we would bring back from location. Don’t forget, I was Chief Photographer for Statesman, Paul Chief photographer for Express and Kishore Chief Photographer for HT. It’s not like today where editors don’t care and all space of photographers has been given away to advertisements. For me, when I am photographing, my loyalty is only and only to the situation in front of me, not to any paper or to my editorial brief or to my editor or to any political party. I would always channelize that energy and put everything into the picture. And then I would then take the product of that energy back and put it front of my editors, and they then could not deny me my space.

 

On how photography has become his philosophy in life

“ Photography is about a moment. I live in that moment. I live in only one reality at a time. I don’t think that I have something special waiting for me in my future so I can compensate for it then later by compromising on my present. I live in the here and now of every situation.

 

Now that there are so many photo practitioners now, do you think some sort of structure is necessary for education in photography?

“ More so now than ever! But unfortunately there are too many schools where not much quality is being taught. Here in my institute, when I am teaching them in the 1year course, I make it a point to almost wring them and hang my students upside down! I don’t compromise. I try to make their creative instinct come alive and then put fire to it! Some have even cried because they never knew the amount of quality and creativity they had in them. Here I would like to say, this transformation as a photography has to be continuous not a one off. If you make a big leap once, that qualifies as only one. You have to keep going forward. Its like unfolding of a Raga. That was the difference between Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray. Ray was constant and Ghatak was erratic.

 

Is there any moment that you switch off mentally? Is there any moment that you are not a photographer?

 “ No I don’t switch off, but it is very difficult to always live in that creative instinct. I don’t switch off, but sometimes I have to switch off. I always remain a photographer. Sometimes I wake up at 4 in the morning, with ideas in my head regarding projects that I am working on. Then sometimes I wait for the morning to come early so that I can quickly get to work. “

 

What is one picture that you regret missing?

“ Many. Many. Many. Sometimes you catch it, sometimes you loose it. I don’t live in that moment then. If it not meant to be then its not meant to be. Yes, sometimes you feel terrible about it for a little while but you have to get over it. If you were in a situation with other photographers and you missed a shot and somebody else got it, then yes maybe you regret it a bit extra. But all of those misses teach you a lot of things. Preparing for the next moment that is about to offer itself to you and you remain open with your instinct in advance should be your motive. I am my worst critique. I am very cruel with myself. I hang myself upside down. Samajhta kya hai sala! I sometimes say to myself. Im doing a book now, its called “Thyself” which is a collection of self portraits. In that I have written, about this (points to himself) critic that I inherited, and he is always standing in between me and myself.”

 

How do you channelize your time apart from photography.

“ There rarely is a time without photography. Something or the other is always happening. Even if I am gardening or these days I am digitizing old audio tapes. On my desk simultaneously I will be doing corrections for my book while converting a few tapes. Something photo related is always happening. “

 

For photographers today, what do you think is the best way for photographers to put their work out in the world? Books, Exhibitions, or online?

“ None of that! First put out your heart into the sensor of your camera. Then everything else will follow.

 

Upon realising, that almost a couple of hours have passed in the engrossing talk, he informs me, he has to go on duty (go and take a class of students). As we walk out, I found him at his most candid and honest moment.-

“I always say capturing the moment in front should be the photographer’s dharma. Nothing else. The purpose of photography is to capture the time we live in and the moment that we live in, in a non – negotiable manner. Capturing time is necessary as it is going to be the photo history of tomorrow. History can be written and re written, photo history cannot be re written. “ he said, quickly plucking away a few drying leaves from the money plant adorning the entrance door.

Fearing a reprimand I asked him, what he misses seeing in photography of today. Promptly he replied-

“ The ordinariness of daily life, captured in an extra ordinary manner. Woh he rozmarra ka jeena, woh he toh saali zindagi hai”

4 thoughts on “A Sunday conversation with Raghu Rai”

  1. Enjoyed. Great Interview. Wonderful style of writing. Sharp, Crisp, Focused. I’m really impressed by your sticking to the point…needs no introduction means : “NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION”.

  2. Great initiative and I enjoyed reading Rahuji’s conversation. I had the opportunity to work with him ages ago. Your interview brought that time alive for me. I am now working as a freelance translator (English-Hindi-English) and if you ever wish to translate these interview in Hindi, I would be more than happy to work.

    All the best for your initiative!

  3. “the journey to a meaningful destination is always lengthy.”
    and the traveller always seeks to know the way
    that would lead him to the joy and unbound ecstasy
    of creating and finding his own array
    of imagination and reality wedded into one
    of facts and fancy that is revealed by none.

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