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40 years of India through Raghu's lens

He is often dubbed the king of camera. Well-known Photographer Raghu Rai, who has captured life in all its shades over the last four decades, still tops the list of India's best lensmen.
IANS | By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 19, 2008 03:21 PM IST

He is often dubbed the king of camera. Photographer Raghu Rai, who has captured life in all its shades over the last four decades, still tops the list of India's best lensmen.

A retrospective show of photographs, "A Journey of a Moment in Time: Raghu Rai", spanning 40 years of the ace photographer's works, was unveiled on Tuesday at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.

"It is difficult to describe my work. Basically, the title of my show has a lot to say - capturing a moment. For me, it has been the journey of the moment in all these years, a measure of where one has reached," Rai, 66, said.

"Photography is basically a Western language and is relatively young in India. Millions of photographers have captured nice moments across the world, but in India photography has a special significance because it is a multi-religious country where so many cultures co-exist. I have tried to capture all this and more over the last four decades," Rai told IANS.

The show features Rai's milestone series documenting Mother Teresa's life and work from 1970 till her death in 1997, including her funeral procession. Also on display are his series on Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans in exile and the horrors of the Bhopal gas disaster, which he shot in detail for a prolonged spell since the day after the disaster.

Rai's documentation of various communities has also been included in the show. A series on Sikhs covers a range of aspects from traditions, customs, faith and the various traumas and discrimination that the community has faced. His documentation of Delhi varies from slices of life to the socio-political atmosphere of the city.

The show also takes a look at the photographer's studies of Kolkata, Varanasi and Mumbai and places of tourist interest like the Taj Mahal and the Khajuraho temple. The frames are both in black-and-white and in colour.

Sixty per cent of the show is devoted to images by Rai that have never been seen before. The exhibition ends April 15.

Born in 1942 in a village, Jhhang, now in Pakistan, Rai took up the camera with seriousness after one of his photographs was published in the London Times in 1966.

"It sort of tickled me and soon photography became a passion. It was just by chance, not that I wanted to become a photographer," Rai said. He started off with the box camera presented to him by his brother.

His initial years were ravaged by the trauma of partition. And this was the India he chose to showcase in the 1960s when he joined The Statesman as its chief photographer. Impressed by his photographs at an exhibition in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson invited him to join Magnum Photos in 1977. He subsequently worked for The Sunday, a magazine published from Kolkata and India Today.

Rai admits to being influenced by Bresson's style, especially during the first 20 formative years of his career when he worked in "black and white".

"His way of capturing decisive moments in history had a great influence on everybody, including myself. But years of experience and shooting on my own have taught me there is no one else for you, but one's own self who is the greatest guru and poser of challenges," Rai said.

The photographer's journey from black and white to colour in the 1980s was eventful - from the tumultuous days of the Emergency to its violent aftermath. This era also saw some of his most iconic images. However, Rai has kept pace with time. He has embraced digital technology as his recent medium because its scope as the photographer says is limitless.

"It is always easier to photograph in black and white. The bulk of my photographs is in black and white. Life in colour is the truth but it is difficult to match them with the moods all the time. But with a black-and-white filter, everything blends easily. It is easy on the mind's eye and viewers like the simple images, rather straight answers in yes and no," Rai said.

The lensman, who believes that a photographer is a sensitive visionary, says no other artistic medium can replace photographs if shot with sensitivity and emotions.

"A good painting by a big painter is the way the artist wants it to be, but a good picture is a slice of life, the way it exists. But unfortunately, photographers these days are concentrating more on exhibitions, sometimes two or three at a time. As a result, the frames are becoming half-baked, half understood," Rai rued.

The lensman is working on a volume about classical musicians, which will include photographs shot during Rai's personal interactions with them.

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