Through the lens of Raghu Rai

Through the lens of Raghu Rai

When I take a person’s portrait, I am trying to capture the aura of the person. I am trying to get the truth of that person emerge in the photograph. This is also why it is difficult to capture that truth if the picture is staged; you need to catch the person off guard, in a moment when someone is not being self-conscious,” writes acclaimed photographer Raghu Rai in the foreword of his latest book, People.

“To give you an example, once I went to actress Aparna Sen’s house and told her that I wanted to shoot a portrait of hers. We spent over an hour, tried different poses and hairstyles, but I was not getting the image I wanted. After a while I told her that it is just not happening, and as a reaction she laughed and put her head on the table. And that turned out to be the moment I was looking for,” the photographer says.

Compelling portraits such as this, both in monochrome and colour, comprise the book published by Aleph Book Company.

It also features candid shots of well known people and artistes including thespian Ebrahim Alkazi, shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, politician and lawyer Arun Jaitley, contemporary artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher, actor Moon Moon Sen, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and writer and poet Vikram Seth, beautifully interspersed
with portraits of the common man on the streets and even those who once came to paint and polish Rai’s house.

“The art of portraiture is as old as photography itself. But in the earlier days it used to be studio style — which was a stiff and conscious effort. However, in this book, I have explored the people I found interesting in an unplanned way in a variety of styles — ranging from candid photography to environmental portraits and even outside studios,” he adds.

“Yes, the book features a mix of people, but in the end all of them are pictures that exude energy, emotions and can make the viewer say wah! People who are around me become my concern, and creative people like me should not analyse or form opinions about people,” he tells Metrolife.

Recipient of the Padma Shri (1971), in his half a century career as a photographer, Rai has won many national and international awards, and accolades. His solo exhibitions have travelled to London, Paris, New York, Hamburg, Prague, Tokyo, Zurich and Sydney. His photo essays have appeared in Time, Life, The New York Times, The Sunday Times, Newsweek, The Independent, and The New Yorker.

“Ever since I picked up the camera, I have done street photography, along with shooting celebrities. But, I have always worked with film. Thanks to technology, my office managed to digitise my works — which took them nearly four years. And when I saw the images, I immediately decided to publish a book,” he says.

Rai, who lives and works in the capital city, shares that while the most recent image in the book is of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (2015), the oldest image is of Mother Teresa from 1970, when he had met her for the first time.

“The Mother was one of the most compassionate human beings, but she was not always willing to be clicked. So, in a way she was a complex subject to capture,” says Rai, adding that his first meeting with the Mother was the beginning of a lifelong association that had a “profound influence on me as a human being, as well as a photographer”.

“And the portrait enjoyed most was of His Holiness... He is all about positivity and spiritual energy, and it is an experience in itself,” he adds.

Sharing the tricks of clicking portraits, Rai says that a photographer can manage to get the perfect shot “within a few seconds, but it can also take hours. So patience is the key”.

In the book, he writes how his “precious” photographs have always sought to capture the fleeting moment, which is true of his portraits as well. He says that his technique, therefore, is to keep taking pictures of the subject until he or she is unguarded in their relationship with the camera, even for a moment.

“Take the picture of Satyajit Ray which appears in the book. Ray was one of my favourite people to shoot. This picture was taken on the sets of Ghare Baire. He asked me, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I did not know what to say.

I took some pictures rather uncomfortably. I wasn’t enjoying it. After a few minutes, he said, ‘That’s enough!’ and I said,

‘No, Manik da, that’s not enough!’ When I protested, he smiled and I took some more pictures. After some time, there was a break between the scenes.

He lay down on the same bed, on which his heroine was sitting, smoking his pipe, and I took some pictures from the front. Then I moved towards the other side from where you could only see his back and I realised the lighting was very dramatic. You could see the adjoining room through the door and there were spectacular shadows falling on the wall. So I said, ‘Manik da, please look here!’ He turned with an intense look and that was it,” he writes.

However, Rai says he is most uncomfortable clicking photographs that are posed upfront. “Which is why,” he says, “I find candid moments even in posed situations.”

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