The Great Indian Camera
By John Mathew
New Delhi: The world squeezed its eye shut, looking at the staring eyes of the girl who had fallen victim to Bhopal gas tragedy. Those who saw the picture found it difficult to come to terms with the enormity of the catastrophe.
It is through the lens of Raghu Rai’s camera that the world saw India — Mother Teresa immersed in prayer; legendary Carnatic musician M. S. Subbulakshmi; villages and cities of India.
The photographer who opened the eyes of the world is with us today. Deepika’s Delhi photographer John Mathew recently interviewed the icon. The Malayalam article that appeared in the Deepika has been translated by Maryadasan John, a veteran journalist in Delhi. Excerpts:
In the vicinity of Qutab Minar in Delhi. It is in this capital city that historic figures like Muhammad Gori, Qutabuddin Aibak, Iltutmish, and Firoz Shah Tughlaq lived and left their foot prints. As I prepare to interview, Raghu Rai in his usual seriousness said, “You raise your queries, I will answer.”
As I stood in front of that icon of photographers, I could hardly remember the questions I had prepared in mind. When I told him that I, like the Eklavya of Mahabharat, was one among those who adored him and admired his works all life, his seriousness melted away. Like a guru treating his disciples affectionately, he started the conversation. He opened up to explain how his photographs became part of history. From the bulky albums kept in almirahs, his characters came out one by one. They narrated their stories through the horse’s mouth. There were stories of agony and distraught; love and passion; how they became part of history; and how they continue to haunt human consciousness.
The Bhopal Girl
Let us start with the Bhopal tragedy that shook the conscience of the world. The picture of the innocent face of a girl who died breathing the poisonous gas brings back sleepless memories. A flower that wilted away before it fully blossomed. She will be remembered so long as man-made disasters continue to hit the planet. What do her blushing cheeks, wide-opened eyes and lips tell the world? “Forget me not; a day will come when people will feel jealous of the dead…” Is this what she wants to tell us….?
Rai is making a journey, through memories. He takes us to the narrow lanes of Kalighat in Calcutta (now Kolkata) through which a thin lady wearing white saree with blue borders walk with wavering steps. Her face betrays her age with wrinkles all over; still it raised hopes for millions in the world.
The ace photographer then takes us to personalities like Indira Gandhi, the iron lady of Indian politics. He becomes vocal about the numerous riots and revolts; the burnt bodies that tell volumes about the barbarity of human insensitiveness; the horrible sights he witnessed in riot-torn areas; the frozen lives his camera captured and left for eternity; how they became history in the days to come.
The frozen moments captured through the ‘eyes’ of the camera can become witnesses of history tomorrow. The greatness of a photographer lies in identifying those events and eventualities, thus making them historic and momentous. If a photographer is sensitive and responsible with the knowledge of the situation, then what he photographs becomes a photo history, says Rai.
Genesis of a photo
Rai takes us through his numerous journeys to photograph Mother Teresa and the Bhopal gas tragedy. They are history today. The photographer should be dot on time to witness the specific moments of unfolding events. It is not enough to make sure his presence. He should be mentally prepared. A photo takes birth in the ‘eye of his mind.’ He then allows it to be passed on to the film through the eye of his camera. What is important is his vision and understanding about the photo rather than the mere photo. Only those who have such a vision and conviction can click photos of eternal value.
“I do not think which is my most important assignment, more hounding (photograph); I do not live life like that. So many situations like riots and demonstrations have happened. Even in small demonstrations you can capture something unique, something moving.”
Rai says he has not tried to trace those who have been the subjects of his photography. He makes this comment in the context of the much talked about photo of Steve McCurry from an Afghan refugee camp – that of a girl staring at the camera. She was Sharbat Gula who later became the icon of all refugees across the globe. Her photo appeared on the National Geographic Channel; it appeared on the cover page of its magazine. Years later, the Channel and McCurry spent huge amount to locate her. Finally, she was traced to a remote hilly area in Afghanistan where she was living as the second wife of a tribal villager.
Rai says it was not such a great picture that deserved so much praise after 30 years. ‘It is an interesting picture…. But after 30 years it does not mean that it is a magical, historic picture. Not for me.’ He says people love dramatic pictures. But he believes in pictures that capture deeper intense essence of situations.
When photos become history
For Rai, news photography and documentary photography are one and the same. For many, news events and political pictures just end in one click. But one should be able to click snaps which go beyond news. If a photographer is able to capture the mood and emotions of the people, such photos will find a place in the history. They will make people reflect and contemplate even after the death of the photographer.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the most powerful person to hold that post, says Rai. ‘My camera has captured her close relationship with people, with Congress workers. Her respect for artistes and others has become subject of my photography. I and my camera have witnessed the riots after her assassination. At a personal level, she has showed her closeness to me,’ he reveals. Then Rajiv and Sonia too have been subjects of his photography. Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi too have become part of history through Rai’s magical clicks.
Experiments to continue
To the question as to what is there left to achieve in life as he has reached the peak of his profession in name and fame, his reply was very matter of fact: “…. these are just part of my explorations. The more you explore the more you learn; there is no end to it. Never say it is the top and nothing more…. Life and nature keep changing every moment, and that is more challenging…. It is explorations and experiments through photography that I am doing.”
Rai was born in 1942 in Jangil of undivided Punjab (now in Pakistan). His father wanted him to become a government employee after he completed his studies in civil engineering. But he preferred to be a photographer like his elder brother S. Paul. Even after his retirement as the chief photographer of Indian Express, Paul persists with his love for camera. Sons of both Paul and Rai are following in the footsteps of their fathers.
It was Henri Cartier Bresson, father of modern photo journalism, who gave Rai an entry to Magnum Photos, an international news and photo agency. It was Bresson who captured the last moments of Mahatma Gandhi who fell to the bullets of an assassin.
It was in 1965 that Rai took up photography as a profession. His photo features regularly appeared in Statesman, India Today, Time, New York Times, Sunday Times, News Week, The Independent and New Yorker. Rai has brought out many photo books on Indian culture. He has brought out 18 coffee table books including India, The Sikh, Calcutta, Khajurao, Taj Mahal and Tibet in Exile. He has brought out three books on Mother Teresa and the fourth one is in the offing. He has produced one documentary for Green Peace on Bhopal gas tragedy.
The country honored him with Padma Shri in 1972. In 1992, he was conferred America’s Photographer of the Year award. Apart from these, he was bestowed with several other awards. He held photo exhibitions in Washington, New York, Paris, Venice, London, Prague, Rome, Australia, Finland and Switzerland. He has established photography institutes at Mehrauli in Delhi and Gurgaon in Haryana.
White saree with blue border was the uniform of the workers of Calcutta Municipal Corporation. Today it is the symbol of an angel who left this world after showering love, and love alone. It was Rai’s photos that proclaimed to the world the ocean of mercy hidden behind the wrinkled face and blue-bordered saree.
Rai says Mother Teresa has become the most important personality in his life. I like to call her Mother as she had committed herself fully to her goal and objective. For her, every human child was her child. Who else can claim all as one’s children? That is why she picked up the poorest of the poor and dying on the streets and looked after them as their loving Mother. “For me she was a spiritual, powerful loving lady. If she had rung up Vajpayee saheb he would have come on line. In the same way Clinton or even Saddam Hussein. She had so much magic about her spirituality.”
When I told Mother about my first book on her, she said: “Look Raghu, for you the inmates at Nirmal Hriday at Kali Ghat might be mere subjects. For the world, they may be Mother’s inmates. But for me they are the children of God whom Jesus had entrusted to me.” Each time he clicked his camera, Rai could hear those words of the Mother and it slowly got embedded in the frame of his mind.
Rai has brought out three photo books on Mother. The third book brought out some 10 years back was titled The Saint Mother. “I had known her very closely and I had known her as a saint.” He is working on the fourth book on her in which he wants to add photos relating to her canonization.
“My photographs should have a moving experience rather than I make a movie,” with these words the icon of photographers signs off….
It was Raghu Rai’s touching photo of a girl, victim of Bhopal gas tragedy, which the author happened to see in a magazine that drew him to photography; and it also led to his career in photo journalism. I had never ever imagined that I will land in Delhi one day and interview Rai and click a photo with him.