Art is about capturing intensity of human energy; beauty is secondary: Raghu Rai

Acclaimed photographer Raghu Rai on art and why he thinks India lives in different centuries at the same time, in the same place


History can be written and re-written, but photo history cannot ever be re-written, according to Raghu Rai. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/HT
History can be written and re-written, but photo history cannot ever be re-written, according to Raghu Rai. Photo: Kalpak Pathak/HT

A photo is the most powerful story of its time, says acclaimed Indian photographer Raghu Rai.

“History can be written and re-written, but photo history cannot ever be re-written. It will remain etched in the frame of time forever,” he said.

Rai has been recording India’s history for more than five decades.

At the Asia Society in Hong Kong last month, he talked passionately about his journey as a photojournalist in India and beyond. And what he has tried to communicate with his extensive body of work, which includes more than 50 books on his “beloved India”.

They are epochal, each a metaphor for India’s cultural vernacular, both the glory and gory.

“India is a muse to any artist,” he claims. “It is an amazing country for photographers where nothing is possible and where anything is possible.”

Rai is the grandmaster in the art of the possible. He says that he has been attempting the task of capturing “India’s soul”.

Not an easy task.

But Rai has tried.

His body of work depicts the unbroken thread of India’s 5,000-year history and its humanity; its bewildering contrasts and contradictions; its frenzied energy and chaos, and its deep stillness; its confluence of life and nature; its beauty and cruelty; and, above all, the juxtaposition of its ancient and modern spirit.

“India lives in different centuries at the same time, in the same place,” he explains. “My job is to reveal the human experience in trying to negotiate this tension.”

In his view, a good photograph about India is a witness to its timeless quality.

“India is a horizontal experience.”

Rai’s India is everyday India. An India he grew up in.

He was born in the small village of Jhhang, now part of Pakistan, in 1942, and took up photography in 1965. The following year, he joined The Statesman newspaper as its chief photographer.

Rai left The Statesman in 1976 to work as picture editor for Sunday, a weekly news magazine published from Calcutta, now Kolkata.

In 1980, he took on the role of picture editor at India Today magazine. Here, for over a decade, he delighted his editors with trailblazing picture essays that brilliantly captured the political, social, and cultural conscience of India.

His prolific body of work spans a dizzying array of India’s culture and history. Its wars, customs, traditions, faiths; its endless deserts, valleys, and mountains. He has depicted the lives of ordinary Indians and its greatest leaders, its saints and its charlatans, its rulers and beggars.

His work was recognized nationally and he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972, one of India’s highest civilian awards, given to a photographer for the first time. He also made a name for himself internationally.

In 1971, impressed by an exhibit of his work in Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson nominated Rai to join Magnum Photos, a photo agency for the world’s premier photographers, which he joined in 1977. He has not looked back since.

“The purpose of photography is to explain man to man, and man to himself,” he says.

His camera never looks away. It lends dignity to the most brutal, repugnant, inhuman aspects of existence, while also capturing the evanescent, evaporating nature of life’s beauty before its magic is over.

Rai’s photography reflects his persona.

Like him, his photos are pensive and poignant and also mirthful, buoyant and lush with life. At a stage when he has nothing left to prove, he is on a quest for meaning, refusing to settle into a life of daily ease and contentment.

“My journey is never over. I seek each moment as a magical spectacle unvisited before,” he says.

Edited excerpts:

What is the purpose of art in your view?

Just like a guru, a great work of art, a great piece of music, or image, or film restores the silence within you. All questions are silenced. For that moment, life is fulfilled. Nurturing that silence to connect with the silence of divinity is critical to creativity. An artist brings something from the transcendent space and makes it immanent in his or her art.

What is an essential ingredient for you to inspire great art?

You have to know how to play the Leela of life. When you don’t sing for yourself; when you don’t dance for yourself, and when you don’t paint for yourself with ananda, or bliss, you cannot communicate it to others with your art. Creativity happens in exploration and interaction with an intense moment that has enriched you and will do the same for others.

You talked about darshan as a moment of creativity that you experience when you take pictures. Can you explain?

Creativity is about capturing and revealing the mystery of the moment. You cannot visualize these moments; you cannot preconceive them; you cannot create them. It is nature’s magical gift to you. You simply have to remain open to receiving them as and when they occur.

Darshan means seeing through the spirit and energy of a person, an object or a situation. It’s a sudden moment of realization that you have touched and unraveled the deepest mystery of life, even if just for a moment.

And when you respond creatively to this immediacy, you capture more than a photograph. You capture the magic of the universe: because nature works through you to manifest its reality.

Composing a photograph is like composing a raga. You work for a while within the boundaries and the rules, but then, in a moment of inspiration, you improvise and let go, to reveal an eternal truth.

You once said, “either you capture the mystery of things, or you reveal the mystery, everything else is just information.” What do you mean by that?

Once, when I went to the Churchgate Railway Station in Mumbai, which is one of the world’s busiest railway stations, I noticed that the local trains come after every two minutes and thousands of commuters get on the train in a tearing hurry, especially early in the morning office hours.

And within seconds, in a blink of an eye almost, thousands of people disappear, and the platform is empty again.

It’s a surreal experience.

For me, it was like witnessing a human deluge that rushes in and, moments later, disappears.

This is what I wanted to capture and convey through my photograph.

I am not there to show that thousands of people come daily; this is mere information.

But to perceive it as a sudden human deluge that appears and disappears is a mystery.

Art is about capturing the intensity of this human energy, this human interaction. Beauty is secondary.

More From Livemint