Raghu Rai, author of over 30 coffee-table books on photography, is sensitive about the nomenclature of cities. “If you call Mumbai by its old name Bombay, Shiv Sena will kill you. Why offend anybody for name’s sake?" says Rai.

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The book, Varanasi—Portrait of a Civilization, has 128 new and old, coloured and black and white, exotic and routine photographs of the city, taken by Rai at various points during his 40-year career.

Varanasi—Portrait of a Civilization: 161 pages, 3,999.

Rai, who often talks of himself in the third person, would keep returning to Varanasi—first as a photojournalist and then as an independent photographer—with the idea of chronicling his affair with the city in a book. City books seem to be something of a pet theme with him, and he’s previously published books on Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

While no chronicler can escape the ghats of Varanasi along the Ganga river—the city’s core—Rai sat with us in his Mehrauli studio (that overlooks Qutub Minar and a dump yard) in south Delhi to talk about those photographs that subverted what has become a leitmotif for writers, film-makers and photographers alike.

The book’s cover image isn’t a cityscape. It forefronts an old beggar. What is striking is the way she has closed her eyes. The very portrait of meditative stillness, her expressions carry the essence of Hindustan, according to Rai. Despite poverty and corruption, most Indians manage to live with content.

And that, for him, is the portrait of the city.

mayank.s@livemint.com

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