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Book excerpt: How Raghu Rai convinced Mother Teresa to let him photograph her

It has been 20 years since Saint Teresa of Calcutta passed on. In his pictorial biography of Mother, Raghu Rai, who photographed her for over four decades, puts together some of his most iconic pictures of her. In this excerpt, he remembers how he persuaded her to let him do so.

books Updated: Sep 04, 2017 07:40 IST
Raghu Rai
In his 2017 pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of Her Life and Legacy,  Raghu Rai puts together some of his most iconic pictures of Saint Teresa.
In his 2017 pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of Her Life and Legacy, Raghu Rai puts together some of his most iconic pictures of Saint Teresa.(Raghu Rai)

I first went to meet her in the 1970s for a feature story for Junior Statesman, a magazine of which Desmond Doig was the editor. Doig then thought we should publish a book on her so I went to take pictures of her three or four times.

Later, I wanted to do my own book of pictures of her. However, I was a bit unsure of myself at that point when it came to photographing Mother for two reasons—one, I was male, and, two, I was not Christian.

Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead because I hadn’t met anyone like her before, she was extremely precious to me. There was one other hurdle that I had to overcome and that was Mother herself. She was not fond of photographers taking pictures of her. In fact, she said to me, ‘You’ve already done a photo book on me, haven’t you had enough?’ But I persisted, I was extremely sensitive and careful in the way I photographed her and the sisters, and she eventually said, ‘Let me do my prayer and I shall let you know.’ I said, ‘Mother I have done my prayer and the answer is YES.’ At this, she looked at me and then said simply, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ This touched me deeply, it showed how much she believed in prayer, and treated everyone’s prayers the same. She did not think her prayers were superior to mine but that we were all equal in the eyes of our Divine Maker. However, may I say that my prayers could never match her prayers.

In all the years that I was in Mother’s presence, my admiration for her never slipped. I remember one such occasion that made me so proud to be her loving son, and even more proud to be an Indian. One day I was photographing Mother in Kalighat, at the Nirmal Hriday home. She was busy attending to a sick person.

A sister came and told her that a Swiss banker wanted to see her. She acknowledged the message but continued to nurse the ailing old woman. After she had made her as comfortable as possible, she met the Swiss banker who offered her a hefty donation. But there was a touch of arrogance about the offer. Mother heard him out patiently and then said, ‘I am sure there are old people in your country who also need a home and care. Why don’t you do something there? Because my people in my own country give me enough to look after our poor.’

***

Saint Teresa died of a heart attack on 5 September 1997 at Mother House in Calcutta. She had already ensured that a successor, Sister Nirmala, was in place to lead the order. Sister Nirmala had this to say about Mother:

‘Even when His glorious light falls on a dust particle, it begins to shine. So Mother was blessed with that glory.’Her death provoked universal grief. The Government of India gave her a state funeral that was attended by leaders from around the world. Millions mourned her. At the time of her death, as I have mentioned earlier, her order girdled the globe. She had received hundreds of honours from every continent, including the Bharat Ratna and the Nobel Prize for Peace. The world would not see her like again, this tiny woman with a heart as big as all humanity. But the big awards of the world, the adoration of the people meant little to her. She saw herself, in her own words, as a ‘small pencil in the hands of the Lord’ and her mission, simply stated, was: ‘What the poor need most is to feel needed, to feel loved.’

As Vice President Hamid M. Ansari said at an event in Calcutta on 2 October 2016, to celebrate her canonization, we would all do well to heed Saint Teresa’s message: ‘Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.’

Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of Her Life and Legacy
By Raghu Rai
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 148
Price: Rs 1,499