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Raghu Rai | Interview
Raghu Rai interviewed by Anita Kaul Basu
ANITA KAUL BASU. It’s been a long time since we met and a longer time since we were colleagues at India Today. My first impression of you was of a modern day Sufi man, striding past, the wind blowing in your hair and always, a song on your lips . . . a man whose steps were long, who had miles to go . . . an assured purpose in your eyes . . .
RAGHU RAI. Yaar, what a picture! I don’t think I had that much purpose. I wasted a million years of my life. One must know when to move away. I spent 10 years at India Today . . . I was late by 3 years . . . moving away. I remember the day I told Aroon [Purie] I wanted to quit. He was stunned. He said, “Raghu, you have always done whatever you wanted, however you wanted, the way you wanted. Why are you leaving?” I told him simply that when we came together to produce India Today, we were all searching . . . we grew up together. India Today became bigger, richer . . . was slotted as the top magazine in the country. We achieved a great deal . . . Everyone started to feel secure. I knew I had to move.
ANITA KAUL BASU. It’s a creative angst. You don’t like the feeling of security, the smugness and complacency. It can be very frightening to be at the top with nowhere else to go, nothing more to achieve.
RAGHU RAI. To begin with, I don’t believe in slots. I needed to fly. I needed to create a space for myself. Nobody else could do that for me. I was losing my purpose. We at India Today began to dance to all the adulation . . . perform to the “Wah! Wahs!” For me, it was a very comfortable situation. I had everything—the office fax, the office telephone, the office darkroom, the paper. Along the way, somewhere, I discovered I was no more than a kaddu [pumpkin], sitting smug. Creative people can’t afford to be stagnant, static and anchored. I felt useless and dependent. Somewhere, I had lost that urge and that charge that is the essence of creativity.
ANITA KAUL BASU. So what is different now? How has the world changed for you, since the last time you held a job?
RAGHU RAI. I am so free now. Bahut masti hai! I am ecstatic. I dance in complete happiness. I take the pictures I want. I take them when and where I want. I take my pictures and dance in the streets sometimes! I feel inspired. Life is beautiful and Nature, enthralling and ever-changing. I can’t imagine how people can get bored. Every moment the colours and faces are changing. I wish sometimes that there were 10 of me. Just so that I could capture the immense bounty that life is.
ANITA KAUL BASU. But surely you still have to earn and be answerable to someone?
RAGHU RAI. I don’t give a damn now. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. I select the assignments I want to do, even the lucrative foreign magazine ones. I get offers of $2,000 a day for assignments where charges would usually be $500. I refuse even those. If I feel I don’t want to do it, I won’t
ANITA KAUL BASU. So are you saying that money is not your priority?
RAGHU RAI. No. Money matters a great deal. We are now in the digital world and that really costs an enormous amount. What I am saying is that I am not willing to do anything and everything with anybody. If I accept, then I expect to be paid handsomely, so that I feel privileged and do a good job of it as well. My heart and soul and my entire energy goes into every assignment I accept. I feel enlightened. The world is dancing around me!
ANITA KAUL BASU. I was really taken by surprise when I read that your first job was that of a civil engineer with a Jat regiment! It seems in total variance to your present profession.
RAGHU RAI. My dad was a senior administrator in the government, so it was taken for granted that his sons would follow. Both my brother Paul and I held government jobs to begin with. Paul had already been taking pictures. He gave up his job and joined the Himachal government as a photographer. My father just could not fathom why we were both keen to take up photography and that too as a profession. He would often say to people that he had 4 sons, 2 of who have “gone” to photography. It was laced with sarcasm. But things did change. Once I established myself as a serious photographer, and received recognition, he was finally very happy.
ANITA KAUL BASU. It’s every parent’s dream, I guess?
RAGHU RAI. Well, I actually wanted to become a musician. Punjabis have these folk singers called Mirasis. My father used to taunt me and say, “What! You good-for-nothing man—you want to become a Mirasi!” Yes, I was a Mirasi at heart! But for him, becoming a photographer was even less noble!
ANITA KAUL BASU. Is your mother still alive?
RAGHU RAI. No, she passed away a long time ago. She was very proper and nice with all of us, very level-headed and chilled out. A very loving and a wonderful human being.
ANITA KAUL BASU. Do you remember a lot about her?
RAGHU RAI. Not a lot. There were things she told me when I was a little boy that will remain etched in my heart. One of them had a very deep and beautiful meaning. “Aatma mare te swarg na jayenge, agar aatma hi nahi maara toh swarg kaisa jaayega!” [If the soul does not die, one cannot go to heaven.]
ANITA KAUL BASU. Your first picture ever was that of a baby donkey . . . do you still have that Agfa with which you took the picture ?
RAGHU RAI. I don’t have anything . . . not the film, nor the print nor a cutting from the paper—London Times—where it was printed on half a page. I was stunned that Paul actually sent it and received such a welcome and money as well. A London agency saw the picture and told me they’d like to use it on a greeting card. They paid me a good sum. They told me to send them the original negative which I did. When they sent it back, it came to me folded. When I asked them why it was sent like that, they denied all responsibility but I feel it was done deliberately. So that nobody else could use it. I lost that. I have it on a catalogue somewhere but I just don’t remember where. Much later, Cartier Bresson wrote me a letter of appreciation as did Satyajit Ray. Alas, I have misplaced everything . . . but I am hoping, one day, they will all turn up from the stacks of uncared-for papers strewn everywhere.
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