At 10:15 a.m on Friday the 13th of January, a tall gentleman sporting a red long sleeve t-shirt and draped in a black shawl walked into the hall of Lalit Kala Akademi, Bhubaneswar. One could sense an aura surrounding him. His eyes bore the vigour and excitement of a 20 year old. Not just a photographer, Shri Raghu Rai is much more than what he is. A statesman, a joyous human being and an inspiration for young photographers all over the country, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in the contemporary art history of this nation. Apart from being one of the jury of World Press Photography from 1990 to 1997, he is the only Indian member of the prestigious Mangum Photos, an International Photographic Co-operative where the likes of Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, George Rodger,William Vandivert and David “chim” Seymour were the founders. Last week, Shri Raghu Rai was present in Lalit Kala Akademi to interact with the young photographers of the state as a part of the event Kala Dhara.
An old bespectacled gentleman from the audience during the interaction session reminisced a story “ Sir many years ago when I was newly appointed as a lecturer in Puri college and I chanced upon a calendar photo at a tea stall, which portrayed two young hands clasping onto a pair of old hands. The calendar had a layer of dust over it, which I cleaned with my handkerchief and below the photo was a name inscribed Raghu Rai. Since that day 30 years ago, sir I always wished to meet you .”
As the gentleman narrated the incident, tears rolled down his cheeks.
In words of Shri Raghu Rai, “a photographer should take a picture from the heart and not from the head. There is no need for costly cameras or expensive lenses. All one has to do is connect to the energy of his subject that is enough to secure a good photograph.”
A humble and pragmatic man who likes to have chai with youngsters, he preferred to a have an exclusive conversation with us over chai and Butter bite biscuits at a roadside OMFED stall.
Excerpts from the Interview-
TBS: Sir what was it that you always wanted to become?
RR: I always wanted to become a musician. And as it happens, my father wanted me become an engineer. And then in my first year of engineering I picked up photography when my brother handed me a camera.
RR: It was an AGFA Super Silette. Pretty good 35mm range finder camera.
TBS: Please tell us about your experience of Bhopal (Gas Tragedy of 1984) ?
RR: I reached early in the morning on the next day and it had been barely some hours. There was death all around nothing that you can imagine today. Dead bodies, people writhing in pain, dead animals, what not. It was hell.
TBS: What about the photograph of the baby that went on to become the face of the tragedy?
RR: She was being buried by this muslim family. I asked them to please remove the dirt from her face and I took the snap.
TBS: Sir, has there been any incident where you have left your camera and gone down to help or reach out?
RR: Well why should I??
That is not what I do.My job is to share stories through these photographs. People had to know the truth about Bhopal and what happened on that fateful night.
TBS: You are big follower of Mother Teresa. Would you like to tell us something about her?
RR: Mother was a very disciplined and caring person. She loved people who were serious and she had a concern for humanity and love for all the people who were suffering. And it was very difficult to convince her for a photograph. (he smiles)
TBS: Your favourite photographers?
RR: I like the works of Raghubir Singh,Kishore Parekh, Swapan Parekh.
TBS: Your take on Indira Gandhi?
RR: She was a strong prime minister and she had very expressive face, she was a caring lady who was patron of arts, photography and music.
TBS: Sir, where were you during the 1971 Bangladesh War and did you ever meet Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw?
RR: Sam toh bade premi aadmi the. I had met him a couple of times, a nice man with very strong character in him. He was the architect of our victory in Bangladesh. In 71’, I travelled from Jessore via Kulna and reached Dacca on the day of the surrender.
TBS: Sir what is your message for the youth of today?
RR: I saw the photographs here today. Frankly speaking, this is all I’ve been seeing for the last 50 years. Bacchon kuch naaya karo (do something new). It is all right to look at Bresson’s photos or Robert Capa’s photos to learn. But when you take photographs, don’t try to copy them. The world is a very large space and I am sure you can take better photographs than me or anyone. Lastly, when you take photographs, take them alone. For only then you can take photographs by the heart and not by the head.
Shri Raghu Rai is not just a photographer but an epitome of the cross-section of India, who has not only seen It but has also captured the details of its culture, tradition and politics through his lens. A living timeline of India from the days of the 1965 Indo-Pak war till today, his timeless pictures and words will continue to inspire students of photography.