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'India is a photo paradise'

Raghu Rai was one of the first click maestros to raise the bar of still photography to art. The artiste speaks to Reema Gehi.
Hindustan Times | By Reema Gehi, Mumbai
UPDATED ON MAY 23, 2008 03:02 PM IST

For more than four decades, his name has been synonymous with contemporary photography. Be it with a news picture, a portrait, a moment, or a monument, he was one of the first click maestros to raise the bar of still photography to art. His works are currently on display in the city. Raghu Rai discusses his oeuvre with Reema Gehi.

Artistry is evident again in the 200 pictures displayed in The Journey of a Moment in Time: Raghu Rai - a Retrospective. The exhibition is on in the city at the NGMA gallery till June 20.

Rai couldn't be present at the inauguration. Quixotically, he explains his absence by laughing, "It's not necessary for me to oblige Raghu Rai all the time." But he does oblige himself and me by taking on a q and a:

Many of your photographs are unforgettable. Curiously enough, one of the most unforgettable series is of your photos of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
Tragedies like these create an emotionally strong response. With the Bhopal pictures, I shared with the world moments of potency and sensitivity. People were very moved by the photographs and so was I.

Having said that, I don't regard that as my greatest work.

Which would you say is your best work?
(Laughs) Best toh nahin hota hai. Every situation speaks its own language, every picture has its relevance. Like you can't ask me, which is my favourite engraved stone on the Taj Mahal monument.

Surely there must be one subject that obsesses you. Human beings.. (laughs) maybe because I'm one of them. I like to capture people and their reactions to situations.

Did photo-journalism get mundane for you after a point?
Initially, it did.. because I viewed photography as a job. At times, it would get frustrating, especially when my editor at The Statesman would tell me to get a small picture for a story. Eventually, I insisted that they view my pictures properly I enlarged the space given to me - from three columns to six.

Did you ever face any glitches during reporting?
Perhaps. This was after the emergency. I had taken a picture of a ragpicker throwing Indira Gandhi's poster into the dustbin. I showed it to my editors at The Statesman, they were too afraid to print it. This incident deeply upset me, I walked out of the office. I saw the constraints that newspapers have to work in.

I've always been a very honest journalist, I've shown the truth of the matter. I've been no one's best friend or bitter enemy. The next day when the election results were clearer, the newspaper printed it as the lead picture and even called it a photo-editorial.

What's your take on photo-journalism today?
If I may say, photo-journalism today is happy-snappy. Sadly, there's a ‘chalta hai' attitude.

Frankly most of the work today, is childish, repetitive and frivolous. In an effort to take attractive pictures, competent photographers are losing their vision. I don't understand this term called infotainment. I have seen a few respectable magazines carrying appalling pictures with their lead stories.

Do you have any advice for them?

To remember that India is a paradise for photographers. It is so rich in subject matter. One can produce all kinds of stories. The point is to search for them.

What about the excessive use of Photoshop software today?

(Laughs) One can have a lot of fun with it, especially in advertising and when creating some dramatic work. Nevertheless, if you ask me, if photo journalists use it, then it's like indulging in sin. If the picture is visually exciting, you don't need Photoshop to enhance the content.

What do you think of your son, Nitin, as a photographer?

It took me several years to get out of my parents' clutches. So, I let my children pursue their wishes. My son is a photographer and a very competent one. He has done all kinds of work including portraits and fashion photography. I often advise him to find his niche. Today there is a bigger market.. he's 37.. now photographers have a lot going for them.

What about your daughters Avni and Purvai?

They are still very young. Avni is 17 and Purvai is 14. They take pictures for fun. Both paint very well.. they may just take to the brush.

What does your family think about your work?

(Laughs)Well, a few years ago I had displayed my works in France. We were at a café and several people congratulated me. My daughters were thrilled. But my wife, Gurmeet, a conservation architect, keeps telling me to work harder. I tend to get a bit lazy.

Which photographers do you view as essential?

S Paul, who introduced me to photography, and of course, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

And among those from a generation younger than yours?

I find Dayanita Singh, Ketaki Sheth, Swapan Tarkh and Sudharak Olwe extremely bright and creative. Time after time, they have produced good work.

Any upcoming projects?

I'm working towards a new pictorial book on Indian classical music. Over the years, I've shot pictures of Alla Rakha Khan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Bismillah Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Ali Akbar Khan. The book would be my tribute to classical music at the time of remix junk. Once, I wanted to pursue but my parents didn't allow me to.

Other books I'm planning are on changing India and Delhi. I've caught various facets of Delhi in the last 40 years. You know, history can be written repeatedly. But photo documentation can never be rewritten.

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