Raghu Rai’s encounter with famous musicians featured in his book, India’s great Masters, was rich, and, let’s say, challenging. In the eighties, the photographer got Kishori Amonkar to invite him home. He wanted to shoot the artist-in-residence. After half an hour, she had had enough. “When Kishoriji sang, she rained music from heaven. In a bad mood, she’s smoke and fire,” says Rai with a laugh; he can chuckle about it now.
Rai’s black-and-white photography on India’s maestros cover many on-stage moments. Their private moments — when these public figures grimace, laugh, burst into song — reveal that, with this photographer, it was a relationship of familiarity. They opened their home to him, played for him, and showed him their children. Some classics shots are — flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia practising on his harmonium while his servant boy stops his chores to listen; an overdressed Amjad Ali (“he wanted a publicity shot for his new album”) playing the sarod early morning while villagers out on a city-tour gape at him in Red Fort; instrumentalist Ali Akbar Khan in his living room, full of frames of religious and cultural icons; flautist Bismillah Khan playing with his grandson.
Raghu Rai’s shot of Mallikarjun Mansur is a picture that belongs in music history. Rai, who had heard of the master’s illness, went to meet him in Dharwad with a friend. “We stayed with him for three days. I pressed his feet. As I was leaving, he stopped me asking me when I would return,” recalls Rai. The next day he was no more.