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Raghu Rai | Interview
ANITA KAUL BASU. No doubt the pictures you are exhibiting now were also relegated to the dustbin of history ! You never imagined you’d pull them out and some day, somebody would be interested to show them in a major exhibition?
RAGHU RAI. This exhibition is all about the celebration of the female form [shows a rare collection of his prized pictures]. Look at them—they are erotic without being indecent. These were done a long time ago. I was still discovering, playing with form and texture. The style has not changed, but I have evolved, grown. And more importantly, I have freedom now.
ANITA KAUL BASU. These are stunning ! Not what I had imagined from a Raghu Rai-type of picture. They are much more studied and sculpturous.
RAGHU RAI. I wanted to project shapes . . . the woman’s body akin to the shape of smooth rocks. A life within a life. A form that projects features at several levels. A story that needs to be shared and told. You know, I’d done these 30-35 prints and Amit Judge was very keen to have them for a solo exhibition in Mumbai. I was excited, ready to go for it . . . then he developed cold feet. The Shiv Sena in Mumbai would raise cannon if these were shown, and there the case of pictures rested. The most sensual is the one of the lotus leaf . . . it’s absolutely brilliant! Much more sexy than the real female form . . . dekh-ke sharam aati hai, yaar! [It’s so embarrassing to look at them!]
ANITA KAUL BASU. I think you are a photographer of instinct rather than of influence. I know your admiration for Cartier Bresson. What part did he play in forming your style ?
RAGHU RAI. I am a very individual photographer. I rarely let anybody reside in my mind long enough to influence me deeply. I take them out of my system as soon as possible. Cartier Bresson, not just for me but for the world, left so many directions. You can’t deny his genius. It would be stupid to do so. But his style, his world, was born in his context, within himself. There are a lot of photographers now who have been greatly influenced by the Western style and which they have woefully inflicted on Indian situations. It upsets me a great deal. It reveals the shallowness of their creativity.
ANITA KAUL BASU. It’s happening across the art world and Bollywood seems to be at the helm of it. It is a celebration of mediocrity, isn’t it?
RAGHU RAI. Present-day India is all about that. Bombay’s famous photographer [refusing to name him]—he just lifts styles from foreign magazines and pastes them onto his pictures. It’s shameful! Second rate! Creative people like that are an apology. They don’t even bother to evolve, to grow, to bring facets of their creativity into the pictures.
ANITA KAUL BASU. So who matches up to your discerning yet critical eye in contemporary Indian photography ? Surely there must be very talented people out there?
RAGHU RAI. Yaar, sab mein the soul is missing. They’re a few youngsters. Dayanita [Singh], Prabuddha Dasgupta. I am amazed that in a country of one billion people, the top photographers can be counted on your fingers! A small drop in the ocean.
ANITA KAUL BASU. Why do you think it is happening? Everything else has evolved? Art, films, music, theatre . . .on.
RAGHU RAI. Mira Nair is every expressive and very competent but she is not the greatest filmmaker. There’s nobody else . . . Adoor Gopalakrishnan . . . Deepa is smart but mediocre. Ray, now he was a filmmaker . . . he was a dadu! He did not believe in spirituality yet he produced amazing films. Films that were in his context, about himself. I am not too sure whether I like his later films, I think he had lost his touch by then—the big flashes of creativity had ebbed
ANITA KAUL BASU. You mean to say that the creative juices dried up around that time and remained in that space—surely you can’t be so cynical ?
RAGHU RAI. India is a poor nation. Somebody does something insignificant and we promote that person and yet again celebrate mediocrity. We become part and parcel of that false praise. But the media plays a huge part in drumming support for them. Look at Aroon! He’s built a huge empire and chooses non-creative, un-illuminated people to head it. It shows his limitations. We had created a fantastic magazine. What comes out now is not a patch on what we shaped. Yes, technology has aided in a better print output. It’s smarter looking but the content is so stupid!
ANITA KAUL BASU. Technology—an awesome word! A great many people are hiding behind it, doing cartwheels, creating a false sense of creativity.
RAGHU RAI. Anything goes, these days. You can get away with a little bit of intelligence and leave the rest to technology. Yaar, technology leaves me baffled and breathless. The other day my daughter took me to Google Earth. Like a space traveller, I followed her from the sky, into the earth, into India, into Delhi, into Mehrauli (where I live) and into my house. It’s dangerously exciting. So, really, with a little bit of intelligence, you can reach anywhere. But that’s the trap. You think you've reached the top but because you don’t have basic intelligence, your shallowness will eventually surface.
ANITA KAUL BASU. Yet you are revelling in the world of technology. Your world vision has changed. The possibilities are expanding and that has direct bearing on your art.
RAGHU RAI. It’s been a constant high. I’ve discovered a new frontier. Digital technology is not made for difficult lights. You capture something in exactly the same way as your eyes see it. And the quality of the print is finitely close to the real thing. Jatin Das (the painter) is a close friend of mine. He’s been seeing my pictures and has always been critical of my work. Now he sees my pictures and marvels at them. I told him this was possible because of digital photography. It’s dangerously close to life and its colours. It affords you total control over your art in terms of the colours you choose, the forms and shapes and contours you choose . . . it follows the directions of an artist’s brushstrokes. I can create a photograph like Jatin would a painting. I can create my own brush strokes. I can balance my colours accurately and the subjects with acute clarity.
ANITA KAUL BASU. I am sure there are some flip sides to digital photography. Surely what you captured on a manual camera was so much more in your control?
RAGHU RAI. The worse that can happen is that the digital files get corrupted or disappear without a reason. But then those risks were there earlier, too. I have had so many instances where I would send photos for developing and they’d all come out blank. I’ve had dark-room fiascos, films that were patchy, washed out. I’ve lost courier packets in transit, packets of my negatives. Life is a game you play. A few things you lose and a few you win. But in digital photography it is mostly a win-win situation.
ANITA KAUL BASU. You have always criticized people who treat art as commerce and yet you’ve recently done an ad for Nokia. A contradiction?
RAGHU RAI. It’s not for commerce alone. Yes, Nokia used my pictures, the ones I took on the streets. It was my pictures they used, my art and my craft. Not me. I find Amitabh Bachchan the most obnoxious guy—he’s selling paints and Pepsi, soap and pens. I would never do that kind of thing. I am not so desperate.
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