Leafing through People, a book of Raghu Rai’s portraits, a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby comes to mind. On meeting Jay Gatsby for the first time, the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, is struck by the man’s smile. “It was one of those rare smiles," Carraway recounts, “with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life…. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey."

Portrait of the Dalai Lama, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’
Portrait of the Dalai Lama, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’

Many of Rai’s portraits function like Jay Gatsby’s smile, conveying the impression one imagines the subjects would hope to convey at their best. In picture after picture, India’s best-known living photographer manages to draw out some essential strength from the subject till it gains the power of an embodied essence, whether it be the piety of Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa), the philosophical serenity of the Dalai Lama, the ecstasy of M.S. Subbulakshmi in performance, or the iron gaze of Indira Gandhi.

Portrait of M.S. Subbulakshmi, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’.
Portrait of M.S. Subbulakshmi, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’.

One never feels his camera is judging a person’s character or politics. Perhaps that suspension of judgement is a prerequisite for any photojournalist, but Rai manages it better than most. He is as much at ease crafting an iconic image of Bal Thackeray wreathed in cigar smoke, framing an intense close-up of the militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, or of a pensive Jayaprakash Narayan, as he is sympathetically recording members of the Gandhi dynasty. With artists and connoisseurs, his camera usually pulls out to include their tasteful collections, while dancers and musicians are often framed tightly against backgrounds that are dark or out of focus so that they verge on abstraction.

Portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’.
Portrait of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’.

The portraits work surprisingly well in the small format chosen by Aleph Book Company, except for a few faces such as that of journalist Kuldip Nayar, which disappear into the gutter space. The images follow no perceptible chronological or thematic order, which makes for delightful switches of mood, and some surprising bits of information—for instance, the fact that writer Tavleen Singh has sisters named Pity and Kitten. A few ordinary folk are mixed in among the celebrities, but these images are effective only when the subjects can be defined as victims, as in the case of refugees from East Pakistan, drawn from the series that first brought Rai to national attention in 1971.

Portrait of Jayaprakash Narayan, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’
Portrait of Jayaprakash Narayan, from Raghu Rai’s book ‘People’

The quality of empathy that makes him such a versatile artist also defines his limitations. To return to Fitzgerald, Rai’s camera only understands his subjects as they would like to be understood, believes in them as they might like to believe in themselves. The greatest portraitists—Titian, Frans Hals, Basavan and Lala Deen Dayal, to name but four—gave their rich patrons reason to be pleased with commissions, but retained enough artistic distance to add a layer of their own interpretation, which sometimes went against the grain of the obvious first impression. Rai’s compositions are powerful enough to reward repeated viewings but their impact always has the same dimensions. We rarely understand the image in a different way on seeing it again. This lack of semantic complexity leaves him ultimately a little short of my pantheon of supreme photographers.

Rai has published a number of volumes in recent years, among them Niyogi Books’ recent Khajuraho. Journalist Usha Rai provides a concise introduction to the history of the temples, marred by a few typographical errors that ought to have no place in an expensive coffee-table volume. The photographs, taken over numerous visits in the course of four decades, are broadly divided into two sections. Colour prints document daily life around the temple complex and the gaze of visiting tourists and pilgrims. In the book’s second half, black and white takes over and the focus shifts to architecture and sculpture. Rai delicately brings out the contrast between ordinary lives (enlivened occasionally by peculiar events like a migrating crane deciding to settle down permanently in the area and being adopted by villagers) and the magnificent edifices in whose vicinity those lives are lived. Turning his camera to the evocative stones, he captures the sinuous lines and the profound comprehension of mass and volume displayed in the design of the temples and the sculptures they contain. Guides at Konark are fond of explaining to tourists that not only does the World Heritage site in Odisha contain explicit images comparable in number to its central Indian counterpart, but that the sculptures are large enough to be viewed clearly from the ground. Khajuraho, it is true, does not afford as much clarity as Konark. The friezes lining the plinths, like the famous orgy depicted in the Lakshmana temple, are easily accessible, but many of the most interesting sculptures are tucked away in high niches, and require the kind of binoculars one takes along to a wildlife safari to be appreciated.

Rai used a specially constructed ladder to access the higher tiers and gain an eye-level view of individual carvings. His rendering of the stones—flesh, jewellery and minimal costume—is unimpeachable, and the images would have been unalloyed pleasure but for a calamitous decision that should never have got past the editor’s desk. Rai has included studio photographs of nearly naked women and placed these across from images of carved nudes, presumably seeking echoes between life and art. Unfortunately, the photographs of live models, cut off at the neck in order to hide identities, are utterly mediocre. To place these side by side with fine representations of some of the greatest artistic achievements in Indian history is an inexplicable error.

Girish Shahane is an independent critic and curator.

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