For someone who calls colour “noise", an all-colour series that comes after 46 years of award-winning black and white imagery is a big leap of faith.

“If a colour photograph doesn’t hold up its own when converted to black and white, then you have relied too heavily on form, texture and colour; you have failed," says photographer Raghu Rai.

Rai’s latest work, shot in 2010 in Pushkar (Rajasthan) and Bhuj (Gujarat) is a series of colour portraits set against hand-painted backdrops. But while his subjects stand in front of magical sceneries, his pictures capture the candid details in their real surroundings. Fourteen works from the work-in-progress Backdrop Series are on exhibition for the first time at the ongoing Delhi Photo Festival.


His fascination with portraits is new-found as well. Now, on the wall behind him at his studio in Mehrauli in New Delhi, Rai has black and white untitled portraits by the 19th century British-era photographers Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd, and Raja Deen Dayal. At the centre of them all is Rai’s own portrait of his guru, Guruji Nirmal Singhji Maharaj.

“Looking at these pictures, I realized that it doesn’t matter who the person is if you capture their energy and spirit. If the person is a VIP, it adds more heft, but a picture must have the ability to stay alive for itself," says Rai.

Rai spoke to us about using colour, attempting studio portraits and the backstage details of the Backdrop Series. Edited excerpts from an interview:

You’ve been dismissive of staged photographs in the past. What draws you to this kind of outdoor studio work now?

Photo by Raghu Rai

Why the shift to portraits after four decades with “social scenes", as you call them?

The idea of portraits didn’t excite me earlier. Then I started seeing these old portraits...they’re archival but they’re so strong. I realized it had to do with the eyes. You see, because of the technical limitations in those days, the slow lenses, the slow films, subjects had to sit absolutely still. But even if they held their breath for a few seconds, their eyes registered everything. I thought it was a great idea. Though these are shot with a digital camera, all the pictures in the Backdrop Series have a long exposure: at least one or two seconds.

How did the concept of the painted backdrops come about?

I realized that if I’m doing staged portraits, I can have some fun with it. So I got hand-painted backdrops from Chandni Chowk (in Delhi). I decided to set up these backdrops, have three or five people pose in front of it, but capture the rest of the scene as is. It looks really powerful, doesn’t it?

But it has been tedious carrying this frame and these backdrops along. I’m an impatient man. The problem is that the minute you unfurl a backdrop, everything else comes to a standstill… I can’t bear that. I’ve had to spend hours just putting it out there and waiting for people to stop noticing it.

Tell us how “staged" these images really were.

I wanted to go to Pushkar to shoot the performing tribes. I liked their costumes and their attitude. Bhuj happened along the way because a friend lives there.

I had the backdrops set up but the rest of the frame isn’t staged. Some of the subjects weren’t planned either. Like the two girls in Bhuj, I was packing up and they said “Saheb, hamara bhi" (Sir, ours as well). How could I refuse? See how that turned out!

Where do you intend to take this series?

This is just the beginning. I would like to do this across India. But I have to work on this, I have to look for characters who will be patient while I wait for the right moment. I think I could do the Backdrop Series without a painted backdrop too. Like if I make a group of villagers sit for me under a majestic, big Banyan tree and let the rest of the village go by their daily routine.

Is Raghu Rai now a colour photographer?

(Laughs) When I started off in the mid-1960s and up to the late 1970s, it was only black and white. After that, I carried two cameras, one loaded with black and white film and one with colour film. In 2002, when I switched to digital, I only had to carry one camera.

Colour can be deceptive. I convert all my colour pictures to test them in black and white. Way back in the 1970s, we boycotted those kind of pictorialists who indulged in colour. When you evolve, you want to deal with human material which is intense and want to go into layers.

I feel the Backdrop Series works just as well in black and white. But look, there’s just so much colour in them...I had to keep it.

The Backdrop Series is on view at the Delhi Photo Festival at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, till 28 October.

Photographs by Raghu Rai