See An Exhibition of Raghu Rai’s Iconic PhotosView Slideshow
In 1965, Raghu Rai found himself in a village with a friend, when he spied a baby donkey. He had with him a camera—his first—loaded with film by his photographer brother Paul, and no training other than what he had learnt as a civil engineer. “It was towards the evening, when I turned to the other side I saw a baby donkey, looking very cute and funny,” said Rai. “I thought I’d take a good close-up, but the baby donkey got scared and started running and I ran after him. The children in the village were watching and seeing this 6 foot man running behind the donkey, they started laughing.” Eventually the donkey tired out, and Rai got his shot, the very first in his life, of a white nosed foal with an acorn-shaped tuft of hair and down-turned eyes. That photograph won Rai an award from The Times of London, enough money to live on for a month, and the realisation that perhaps photography as a career path was “not a bad idea”.
Today, even those with a cursory interest in Indian photography know that the 70-year-old Rai is the country’s foremost exponent, a protege of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photograph of a glassy-eyed baby buried under rubble became the horrific emblem of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. An exhibition of some of Rai’s photos, all black-and-white and organised by photo collective Tasveer and luxury watch brand Vacheron Constantin, is currently on display at ICIA under the perhaps deliberately encompassing title of “Divine Moments”. There are photos from the 1960s to 2006, of animals both big and small (baby donkey included), Mother Teresa and Indira Gandhi, bangle sellers at Varanasi, labourers and children, old men and pilgrims. They are a random smattering, each depicting an India, off kilter and unfiltered, as Rai himself saw the people and places of a country in flux. In some, it’s not immediately apparent who the subject or subjects are; the faces of humans are obscured in dark shadows, giving unprecedented dominance to their animal companions (of which Rai says is the reality of much of India).
A photo of Ganpati celebrations in Mumbai catches crowds in the throes of an immersion, their faces dusty, their expressions intently focused on the idols, whom we can only see from the back. In black and white, the chaos cannot then be derived from the colour, but rather from the composition, with only a gloomy glowering sky to set the tone. In another image, two old men pass each other in old Delhi, one a crooked curve, sandal-clad, the other upright and suited. They are and from India’s varied spectrum, seemingly united by a wooden cane that appears to belong to both. “This is what happens when you are in tune, in rhythm, in unison with the world around you,” says Rai, who waited for hours at that wall in Jama Masjid. “Nature creates magic for you, she says ‘here you go child’.”
Indeed, it’s this moment of divinity that Rai thanks for many of his shots—in a gathering of sparrows, he says he was looking for something special when a black bird appeared sending them scattering. When he spotted a white-robed female pilgrim atop stone steps in Varanasi, he knew he had the beginnings of a perfect frame. “I said, ‘oh god, this is nice, but not enough’ and then god said ‘I will send a recharge into the space’.” An eagle swept into the frame, hovering in almost incredulous alignment just above the woman’s head. Though Rai himself puts down his meticulous composition to a grander hand, they are unequivocally the work of a photographer so attuned to a country, to a people, that he says he is loathe to take shots of other places. “India,” he says, “is my whole world.”Tags: Art, ICIA, Photography, Raghu Rai, Tasveer
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