Raghu Rai needs no introduction. He is known to people who are well versed in photography and its development in the subcontinent. Those who are not keen about any such modern cultural surge, have surely seen his awe-inspiring images. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest photographers who emerged out of Asia, and is considered the father of modern Indian photography. Through his lens, he has captured India over four decades, showcasing the transformation of the nation and presenting aspects of the country that was only possible through his conscience driven interrogation and probe. In the photographic terms, Rai’s strong points are his unique perspectives and his power of envisioning an image, as well as the fact that he pays attention to each and every corner of his frame that can entrap viewers for hours.
The maestro of visual alchemy ardently recorded the plights of the Bengali refugees during the Liberation War, and paid his sincere homage to the victims of Bhopal tragedy. These are two of the most memorable series alongside many others, which helped secure his place in the history of photography in this region.
Raghu Rai was born in Jhang, now a part of Pakistan. He was the youngest of the four siblings and his father worked in the irrigation department. Rai’s elder brother Sharampal Chowdhury was a photographer and he inspired him to get involved with the craft. Rai’s triumph in the trade commenced before he even started working professionally.
In 1965, he borrowed a camera from his elder brother and took pictures of a donkey while visiting a village with a friend. After processing the image, Rai’s brother sent the photo to a weekly competition by the Times of London and he was awarded prize money. After winning an award for the first picture he ever clicked, he never had to look back ever again.
The following year he joined The Statesman, a daily newspaper, as its chief photographer. Later, the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson overwhelmed by one of his exhibitions in Paris in 1971, suggested him to join Magnum Photos in 1977.
‘He introduced me to Magnum photos and wanted me to be a part of it. I admired and questioned his work and he was a great human being,’ Rai fondly recalls. He worked in several publications afterwards including Sunday, a weekly news magazine published from Kolkata, and India Today, during its early years, as a picture editor and photographer.
Rai has published more than eighteen photography books depicting several Indian states and surveying prominent personalities such as the Dalai Lama, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa.
He won several awards and accolades for the works he has done. Rai was the first photographer to be awarded Padmashree, India’s highest civilian honour, in 1971. He also has a plethora of important works as a photojournalist which has been acclaimed all over the world, such as the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1984 and the plight of the refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) during the 1971 Liberation War which was later published in a book called ‘The Price of Freedom’.
Although, the septuagenarian now suffers from geriatric frailty, he is furiously ardent about photography and came all the way from his homeland to Bangladesh to attend a talk in this year’s edition of Chobi Mela. In his talk he spoke about some issues regarding modern photographers and gave some sound advice to the future generations.
‘Nowadays, there’s this trend of photographers calling themselves artists and I find it rather worrying. If I manipulate the sky and turn it green or draw a figure over an image and call it The Last Supper, no one is going to bother asking me because they’re thinking an artist is behind it,’ he argued. He further said, ‘Photographers can use artworks as a point of reference but simply mixing the two is unjust to photography in general’.
‘Your image must speak for itself, through its content. A single powerful image is here to stay as a final permanent witness,’ he argued.
While speaking, he expressed his concern about young photographers showing a tendency to copy works by other photographer’s and insisted that they try to look from their own point of view and be truthful to themselves.
‘Your work should be so instinctive and truthful that it should ask many questions to anyone seeing the pictures,’ he said.
The veteran photographer also expressed his love for the people of Bangladesh: ‘I must say Bangladesh is a far more gentle country. The people are nice and it’s easy walking around and taking pictures.’
He pointed out, while the Chobi Mela was very important for Bangladesh’s photography scene, he wasn’t pleased with a few of the exhibitions, which could have been better as he feels more attention needed to be paid on curation.
On his experience while photographing the refugees during the 1971 Liberation War, he says, ‘I was trying to capture the essence, the pain and suffering of what was going on while photographing the refugees of war.’
When asked about what his legacy would teach the new generation in the coming years, he humbly replied, ‘I have no legacy. I am a photographer living each day as it unfolds. The next day I am still shooting. So my legacy is — to share honesty and truthfulness, if that makes any sense.’
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