One of the highlights of the Delhi Photo Festival in November was a double exhibition of works by India’s most eminent living photographer, Raghu Rai. One displayed photographs from a recent commission by a Chinese smartphone company (Gionee), for which Rai traveled around India, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, over a 21-day period, and amassed his impressions of its current complexity for the book India Through the Eyes of Raghu Rai. Wonderful images of solemn monks, chaotic street scenes, insouciant teenagers, and so forth fill its pages, frequently in panoramic format. But the exhibition that captured a true sense of Rai’s soulful life’s work was The Album — a large part of which focused on his own family and his earliest years as a photographer, including his first photo (a head-on view of a baby donkey) that was published. These images reveal his affectionate stance toward both his inner circle and the wide world, and especially toward the “everydayness” of life. Neither documentary objectivity nor aesthetic credo is accorded the highest value; love is. In a stellar career that spans half a century, Rai has woven in and out of privileged photojournalism (iconic shots of Indira Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, to name a few) to publish books on many terrains, but he has always returned to his emotional core subject: family, friends, quiet fleeting moments of his own life.
Finding magic in the mundane is a natural result of Rai’s native grasp of the divinity in all things. “For me to see … is Darshan,” he writes, referring to the Hindi word that denotes God’s visitation to us when we are duly receptive to the totality of being. For Rai, who says he never stops being a photographer, it’s more than a profession, it’s an existential act that seeks out the essence of things. “Photography is about connectivity and presence.” In the mid-’60s, when he began working for newspapers, he soon tired of shooting the leading political figures of the day (he has published two books on Indira Gandhi alone), and found his most cherished subjects in his private sphere. He cites the simple yet ravishing beauty of Satyajit Ray’s milestone films The Apu Trilogy (1955–’59), which depicted the ordinary daily life of a young Bengali in the early part of the 20th century in a way that made it a profound celebration of humanity and the dignity of the less fortunate. This is what Rai has strived for in his own work.
Most of the work I saw at the photo festival overall was politically charged, from anti-war to images of the dispossessed, and very little that was purely aesthetic. Rai has said that the purpose of photography is to capture the time we live in, but he is also devoted to exposing the human spirit. His work is both intimate and formally pleasing to the eye, yet seems to be done effortlessly and spontaneously, as if capturing life on the fly, guided as much by his spur-of-the-moment amusement as by any overall strategy for reporting on a place or event. For Rai, photography is a kind of spiritual tool for staying linked to the present moment, each new aiming of the camera a means of divesting the previous moment and its memory. It’s a dance with time that keeps the photographer unencumbered with stale strategies and associations, and innocent of “making second-rate photographs of the past. Memory is the biggest hurdle in creativity. No matter how learned or philosophical you are, creativity has to happen in its own clean, silent space.”
What photography is not, says Rai, is a “cooked up” exercise in aesthetics, meant to look like art but devoid of “human energy, of a heartbeat of its own.”
Rai is a photographer who believes devoutly in giving back, by sharing knowledge and skill. He founded a thriving photography school outside Delhi and recently launched a bi-monthly international photography magazine, Creative Image. Although its emphasis will be on work produced on the Indian subcontinent, Rai dismisses the notion that there is a single Indian sensibility or vision, and he resists the national pigeonholing that blocks any region’s art from the global stage. Although he is critical of Indian photographers who have absorbed wholesale the styles of the West, his personal pantheon includes Atget, Kertész, and other pioneers whose art resides far from Asia. So his magazine will offer a balance of Western and Asian masters, along with photo essays on current issues and events, such as that of a photographer who embedded himself with Syrian refugees making their way to freedom, and significant archival works such as the homey images of Mahatma Gandhi shot by his own grand-nephew. To what extent is Rai hands-on editorially? “One-hundred percent,” he jests, “I’m a very nasty man in these matters.”
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