Raghu Rai: Life in the raw

Stories of grandeur, religious experiences and political ambition jostle with those of everyday ecstasies, hardships, sorrows, humour, even ennui.

Published : Apr 21, 2024 17:39 IST - 8 MINS READ

Gypsies, Kurukshetra, Haryana, 1966

Gypsies, Kurukshetra, Haryana, 1966 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

Over the last 60 years, photographer Raghu Rai has more than proved that histories can go well beyond the written word. In meticulous detail, his camera has visually documented the life and times of independent India, often telling stories that no text has ever recorded.

A civil engineer by training, Rai took to photography at the age of 23. Tucking life as a news photographer under his belt with stints at TheHindustan Times, The Statesman, India Today and Sunday magazine, he quickly “went beyond the norm”, seeking out “blissful moments—which were very rare”. Ever the flâneur with a purpose, Rai has wandered the length and breadth of the country, gathering images and experiences along the way. Three hundred of these are showcased in the ongoing exhibition (February 1-April 30), Raghu Rai: A Thousand Lives—Photographs from 1965-2005, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Saket, New Delhi.

A photographer’s shop in Calcutta, 1980

A photographer’s shop in Calcutta, 1980 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

Curated by Roobina Karode with Devika Daulet-Singh, the exhibition is the first large-scale show of Rai’s photography after the 2007 retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art. The images here belong to the pre-digital era of analog/film photography that relied heavily on dark rooms and control over light, shadow, chiaroscuro. Many have been displayed for the first time. Stories of grandeur, religious experiences and political ambition find equal space with the everydayness of ecstasy, hardship, sorrow, humour and even ennui.

Two worlds

A huge blow-up just outside the first gallery titled “Dust storm created by a VIP helicopter in Rajasthan, 1975” shows swirls of desert as villagers, men turbaned and bare-headed, dhotis awry, try to shield themselves from the transient whirlwind of power and glory. Worlds divide them from the passengers of the aircraft, who are no doubt oblivious to the discomfort they have left in their wake.  The display represents such dichotomous worlds, chiefly through the overarching personas of the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Mrs Gandhi—whose images occupy well-organised spaces in the exhibition—and those of people on the ground, their images displayed, ironically, in a less systematic and at times, confusing manner. 

Dust storm created by Indira Gandhi’s helicopter, Rajasthan, 1975

Dust storm created by Indira Gandhi’s helicopter, Rajasthan, 1975 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

The exhibition rooms present a melange of everyday India, its streets, alleys, fields, shanties, and above all, its people. Many are scenes of existence in the raw. Of lives in the balance—cyclists weaving dangerously through four-wheelers, the not-so-young hanging out of buses, an ancient man trying to board an equally ancient Kolkata tram, stress writ large on his toothless face. There is an unforgettable image of Delhi’s Chawri Bazar—its chaos bringing alive the sounds and stress of hapless tongas, of boys hefting laden carts, of negotiations, arguments, of heat and dust. A quote from the photographer reminds one that such images are testimony to a changed cityscape, “a photo-history that cannot be rewritten”.

Boarding a tram, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Calcutta, 1988

Boarding a tram, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Calcutta, 1988 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

Madari, Delhi, 1972

Madari, Delhi, 1972 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

In Rai’s photographic eye, the quotidian becomes poetic, the commonplace a story waiting to be told. There are five people and a child at a tyre shop. One of them is a policeman, not happy at being photographed; another man looks away, clearly bored. Is the tyre shop a popular spot for addas, animated chats, one wonders.  In another, a madari sits with his back to the camera as he whispers to one of his monkeys. Or does the monkey “whisper” to him? The other monkey, clearly disgruntled, sits at a distance, glowering at the camera.

More than ordinary

Tongawallahs sit with their horses who face each other in an image where the animals are cropped at their shoulders. It is this skilful choice of framing that holds the viewer’s attention, makes the photograph more than ordinary, stimulates a stream of consciousness. To me, the most searingly beautiful composition in the entire exhibition is that of two gypsy girls photographed in Kurukshetra in 1966, when Rai had just about started his practice.  They neither smile nor scowl, the photographer’s outstanding use of light and shadow highlighting almond-shaped eyes that speak of an unending pathos.

Untitled, Kasturba Hospital Marg, Old Delhi, 1973-1977
 (From the series, Confessions of a Wall)

Untitled, Kasturba Hospital Marg, Old Delhi, 1973-1977 (From the series, Confessions of a Wall) | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

In another photograph also taken in his early professional years, Rai’s young son’s chubby fingers entwine his grandfather’s wizened ones. The caption of this artfully composed images reads, “My father and my son”. Unlike the many “on the run images” of his late news photographer days, there is nothing serendipitous about these premeditated photographs from the 1960s. 

Untitled, Kasturba Hospital Marg, Old Delhi, 1973-1977
 (From the series, Confessions of a Wall)

Untitled, Kasturba Hospital Marg, Old Delhi, 1973-1977 (From the series, Confessions of a Wall) | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

Rai’s visualisation of work and labour pulsates with energy and determination, with many of the photographs taken on the streets: in an untitled, undated image, we see the outstretched arms of a lungi-clad man pushing something that is outside the frame. The heft of the object is conveyed by the man’s body language, taut leg muscles and the expressions of the bystanders—four children, two with their mouths slightly open, and a nattily-dressed man with impressive shades and an Amitabh Bachchan-style haircut.

A touch of genius

In another image, a woman pushes an overladen cart with wooden crates and a barely visible man pulls it. There is a three-storied building in the background, and Rai forms an interesting geometric composition—the cart tilts dangerously towards the woman, while the building leans away to a vanishing point. Under Kolkata’s Howrah Bridge, a wrestler is being massaged, having his limbs stretched, while his colleagues look on. Equally arresting are the two side stories at the right hand of the photograph—that of a little boy chatting with a young man, perhaps a novitiate. Sheltered by the shade of a young tree, its roots exposed, they smile engagingly at each other, oblivious to the older men around them. Rai is fascinated by trees, by nature, and over the years, has planted several saplings on his farm, collected from all over the country. It is a pity that none of his amazing photographs of trees is featured in the exhibition.

Not unexpectedly, several photographs are routine while others have a touch of genius: a man with his right hand missing and the left cupped in the manner of one seeking alms, stands next to a billboard divided into three sections. He is clearly amused at the photographer’s interest in the quirky display behind him. Two sections of the billboard are collages of photographs and news reports on Mother Teresa, and the third is a painted representation of a young woman in a bikini posing for an enshrouded photographer busy manipulating the camera’s accordion lens. What were the creators of this piece of street kitsch thinking of?

Other street scenes are entertaining—or ironic: a roadside barber positioned in front of a line of male urinals in use, the men clearly more interested in Rai with the camera. A street dog chases a racing tonga, a girl draws on a wall, her cooking pots behind her, a man has made himself comfortable on a pile of tattered posters in front of torn billboards. However, it is the image of a portly, well-dressed man of the world striding along while a bent-over figure hobbles across from the other side, that says it all. The second man has one foot in a jootie and the other is tied to what is clearly its torn pair; he leans heavily on a staff. The two will pass each other shortly, fleetingly occupy the same space, but it is unlikely that they will ever engage with each other. They inhabit different worlds but have one thing in common—well-shaped, dead white moustaches.

His holiness The Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, 1975

His holiness The Dalai Lama in the Himalayas, 1975 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

A number of galleries methodically record the lives and work of the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Mrs Gandhi. Rai photographed Mrs Gandhi almost every other day, memorialising her victories, painful defeat, her attention to detail. A well-timed photograph records Mother Teresa handing a book to a seated Mrs Gandhi. In another, a young Sonia Gandhi in a dress peeps in from behind a door. Seated at the head of a well-laid dining table, her mother-in-law is reading papers. She looks askance at her daughter-in-law and seems to be telling her something firmly.

Mother Teresa with Indira Gandhi after receiving the Bharat Ratna in Delhi, January 1980

Mother Teresa with Indira Gandhi after receiving the Bharat Ratna in Delhi, January 1980 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

Indira Gandhi addressing the nation from Red Fort, Delhi, 1980

Indira Gandhi addressing the nation from Red Fort, Delhi, 1980 | Photo Credit: Photograph courtesy Raghu Rai & PHOTOINK

Rai first photographed the Dalai Lama in 1975 in Ladakh, and found him “gentle, wonderful and at ease”. Images capture His Holiness at work, stretching, sitting before mountainscapes, smiling quizzically or simply posing.

Curating such an exhibition could not have been an easy task. Nor, for that matter, is viewing such a range of work seamless. It requires energy and concentration. The experience could certainly have been enhanced by a more viewer-friendly presentation of captions: having a legend and titles describing more than a dozen photographs right at the beginning of a display wall either had the viewer scurrying back and forth or merely ignoring the text. A caption above or below an image might have looked less aesthetic, but it would have ensured greater involvement. Also, a leaflet with a few select images and a more detailed curatorial note would have been a much-appreciated takeaway from this landmark exhibition.

Malavika Karlekar is the editor of Indian Journal of Gender Studies and was editor of Women and Photography, an online newsletter of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.

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