In Indian classical music there is a concept of the true note—a place of divinity reached only by the most dedicated of exponents.
Award-winning photojournalist Raghu Rai, the recipient of the Padma Shri and the prestigious French award Officier des Arts et des Lettres, has sought to document these spiritual journeys with his camera over the last four decades.
Click here to view a slideshow of some of India’s best known classical music maestros
In 1998, when Rai had gone to California, US, to meet the virtuoso sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, he saw a soundproof room being constructed. Rai asked to hear the ustad perform there but was told: “Agar sachcha sur lag gaya to aap ko bhi sunaunga” (If I attain the true notes, I shall share them with you).
It was this among other incidents that propelled Rai to continue on his mission to document musical greats from across India—including the four Bharat Ratnas, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan and Bhimsen Joshi. His photographs are part of a new 167-page book by Collins, India’s Great Masters: A Photographic Journey into the Heart of Classical Music.
Sitarist Vilayat Khan had famously remarked that Indian classical music was meant for upliftment, not entertainment. The ustad’s words are reflected in Rai’s portraits of these pilgrims—in his close-ups of tense meditation, his stills of ecstatic release.
Rai wanted to be a musician himself. But his father had the characteristic middle-class contempt for musicians. “You want to be a Mirasi?” he’d rebuked the young Rai, referring to the travelling community of musicians who performed at weddings. Rai’s dream of being close to the world of music died a temporary death, but it resurfaced in his work as a photojournalist, first with The Statesman in the 1960s and then with India Today in the 1980s. In his introduction to India’s Great Masters, Rai writes that he spent his first salary on a record player and subsequently, on several long-playing records.
As a photo editor with India Today, Rai started a series of essays on the musical greats and those photographs form the bulk of his book. Over the years, he has profiled only 13 masters, the true nayaks (heroes) according to him: Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kumar Gandharva, S. Balchander, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, Vilayat Khan, Bismillah Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Bhimsen Joshi. Eight are not living now, making this documentation a definitive record. The book is accompanied by perceptive profiles on each maestro by poet-critic Ashok Vajpeyi.
Through his career, Rai has always been known for shooting discreetly, epitomizing a brand of fly-on-the-wall photojournalism for which he has been felicitated greatly. His non-intrusive portraits of these musicians are in a similar vein. They document vulnerable, almost excruciating moments, capturing the very essence of musical devotion.
Each of these images was taken after the exponents had been immersed in a raga for long hours. “Only then does one reach that euphoric, painful climax,” explains Rai.
That his pictures are about soul and not music per se is reflected by a simple fact: His most prized images are the ones that document silence; that pregnant moment before a note parts the lips.