Raghu Rai

Raghu Rai interviewed by Anit Kaul Basu, 2006

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 . . .
RRI: 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.
AKB: 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.
RR: 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.
AKB: So what is different now? How has the world changed for you, since the last time you held a job?
RR: 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.
AKB But surely you still have to earn and be answerable to someone?
RR: 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
AKB: So are you saying that money is not your priority?
RR: 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!
AKB: 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.
RRI: 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.
AKB: It’s every parent’s dream, I guess?
RR: 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!
AKB: Is your mother still alive?
RR: 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.
AKB: Do you remember a lot about her?
RR: 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.]
AKB: Your first picture ever was that of a baby donkey . . . do you still have that Agfa with which you took the picture ?
RR: 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.
AKB: 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?
RR: 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.
AKB: These are stunning ! Not what I had imagined from a Raghu Rai type of picture. They are much more studied and sculpturous.
RR: 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!]
AKB: 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 ?
RR: 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.
AKB: 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?
RR: 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.
AKB: So who matches up to your discerning yet critical eye in contemporary Indian photography ? Surely there must be very talented people out there?
RR: 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.
AKB: Why do you think it is happening? Everything else has evolved? Art, films, music, theatre . . .on.
RR: 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
AKB: 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 ?
RR: 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!
AKB: Technology—an awesome word! A great many people are hiding behind it, doing cartwheels, creating a false sense of creativity.
RR: 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.
AKB: 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.
RR: 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.
AKB: 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?
RR: 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.
AKB: You have always criticized people who treat art as commerce and yet you’ve recently done an ad for Nokia. A contradiction?
RR: 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.
AKB: There must be some popular art that you enjoy, appreciate and see. It can’t be all commerce-driven and bad?
RR: Very few and far between. There’s so much vulgarity in Hindi cinema. These people don’t interest me. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas was fantastic nonsense. They have the audacity to enter it for the Oscars! Where is the earlier Devdas and what is this rubbish?! All these Shah Rukhs and Aishwaryas seem so shallow to me. They don’t impress me.
AKB: How have you changed? Do you see things from a discerning eye, or just differently?
RR: My spirit and energy are the same. My hair is gone. I have a pot belly [can’t see that one with clarity!] but I have my Guruji. Guruji has not acquired any trappings. He was born with it; he could do these miracles. He’s not shy, not calculating but warm and open. He is a “normal” person otherwise. We drink coffee at the Maurya, in the middle of night. Guruji feeds 200-300 people every day. A lot of people contribute in the form of daan patra. No one asks how much they give. I have had interactions with many great people—Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama—but Guruji is way above them. I have never met a guy like that. He has cured people with cancer, brought happiness to the lives of people who had no hope. People have amazing faith in him and yet he is so humble. I cried about this woman who wanted a child. Her story was so touching. I never used to believe in god or in any force. Now I find myself reaching out for something higher than the reality we live in, a spiritual high. We need to be connected to a higher being. Guruji has connected with me but he’s full of humour and fun at the same time.
AKB: Every single photo of yours almost always has a human element, set against a backdrop, peeping from the corner, whizzing past, or prominently in the foreground. So there is a strong human connect, a story, an emotion
RR: The doctor must speak like a human being, and so must a photographer. Even the leaf must speak to us and we, respond to it through our inner eye. There has to be a connection. I take pictures of people because I’m one of them. I’m learning about life, click by click.
AKB: I’ve seen you in black and white and now in glorious colour. Colour is something I would not associate with you.
RR: I’ve brought my old work alive by giving it the right kind of colour value which I can now do because of digital technology. Every colour has its own feelings, its own emotional response. The emotional content each colour is placed in is so difficult to capture. A purple or any other bright colour is tied to the emotional feel of the place. Colours cannot be divorces from your mood, your vision of them. All the colours, whether they gel with each other emotionally or not, are to be moulded into the picture I take. Even if I take the best of pictures in colour, your interpretation of it and your response to it may and will be very different from mine. There is nothing I can do about that. It’s my world and my emotional response to it. I’ve done pictures of the same situation in colour as well as black and white, and they are equally good. The only difference is that it’s a response to worlds which are apparently different but essentially the same. The moments change with every click. The moods change. It may seem like the same picture but everything changes in a moment.
AKB: Do you cry?
RR: I can’t. I’m jealous of women who cry very easily. I have never seen men cry. The last time I cried was when my mother died. I cried a lot. After that I cried when my daughter got married, about 6 or 7 years ago.
AKB: Your son Nitin is now a photographer in his own right. How close are you to him?
RR: We are peas of the same pod. He’s married and divorced. He got involved with this girl—they were working together for some magazine. I was not too comfortable with him jumping into a marriage, not having known the girl for too long. He takes time to be friends. But I did not force a decision on him. He had to go through it and learn that everything changes after marriage. It’s all about years of understanding and togetherness. Give and take. The strangest thing is that he is so affectionate and tender even today. He’s 35. He has chosen to be in the same field as me. He learnt along with me and then flew off to carve out his own path and find his own way. People used to ask me, “Since he’s also doing photography, why didn’t you take him under your wing?” I am very clear that children must learn to fly on their own. Getting into photography was his choice. I wanted him to do his own thing.
AKB: You have 2 young daughters as well.
RR: I share a magical relationship with them. You don’t have control over your kids. All parents think that if the kids fit into their mould, then they’ve made a difference in their lives. If they don’t fit, then they are not obedient, they’re rebels. We cannot do anything to kids beyond a point. The children will most probably choose the same profession as the parent’s and that is a very convenient pattern to fall into. But kids who are wild, energetic, imaginative, they are the kids that are unusual, they have a different kind of energy. They don’t live within the arc of convenience. We must let go of our kids. You can’t hold back a child who wants to walk on his own. Children must have a sense of flight. If they want to fly, the parent must learn to fly with them. It’s only then that your child will feel secure. We not only fly with them but also land with them.
AKB: But you can’t have the same rules for you as with your kids?
RR: The world has changed—there’s so much information around. Kids today know much more than we knew and much more than we think they know. One mustn’t stop them thinking and exploring and feeling and forming. We must go with them, side by side, on their journey.
AKB: Music, art, photography—that is your religion. You have found your god through human faces.
RR: There was a calendar printer who came to meet me from Bombay. He said, “Raghuji, insaan ki sabse badi uplabdhi kya thi? Usne apne liye baghwan invent kiya.” [What was Man’s greatest realization? That he invented god for himself.] That is such a true reflection of what we are and how we relate to god. I was in Mexico, where I travelled into the interior tribal areas. There was a huge church in a place called Laka. A broken-down shell. Inside, there were no lights but incense burning and groups of people huddled together, some drinking, some smoking. Each group was making statues of gods—well, their interpretation of god. Some had faces, others had no limbs, some were big, others small. Each night, the gods were made. And each morning the gods were destroyed if the peoples’ wishes had not been fulfilled. The destruction of each god was done with intense emotion—anger, frustration, desperation. The gods were broken, limb by limb. And the next day was another brand new day with another new god to be created, another prayer, yet another boon to ask for. This continues till their prayers are answered. It’s a touching and very eye-opening story. But that is how we are with our god. We always ask for the fulfillment of our wants and desires.
AKB: What or who is your god ?
RR: All our gods are connected to the Supreme Power. Our gods are but messengers of the Supreme Power. For me, it is Guruji. He has cured Aroon Shourie’s wife of Parkinson’s. Naresh and Madhu Trehan are his disciples and so is Vasundhararaje Scindia. Guruji is from Punjab. He has amazing eyes . . . he knows who is doing what at any point of time without that person even being near him. Guruji has a fragrance and whosoever he connects with, can sense that fragrance. He can scan people and he is seldom wrong. My wife, Meeta, is his hardcore disciple. He is the purest soul I have ever met.
AKB: You seem to have a very understanding relationship with your lovely wife Meeta.
RR: Relationships with your children are unconditional but with everybody else, conditional. Meeta is so dedicated and serious about her conservation projects. If I had half her dedication I would be a better photographer. She is a very important part of my life and understands me completely. She is a pure soul.
AKB: You used to have a bike ?
RR: Strangely, I have never been a bike man. My first vehicle was a Maruti Gypsy which I had modified during the time I was at India Today. I’m not a car person but I need one. I prefer a station-wagon type of car. Even if I had the money, I would never buy a Mercedes or a BMW. It’s just not my style.
AKB: Do you like eating ? Are you a foodie ? Would you go crazy in search of good food—seek out restaurants and eating places to taste new exciting dishes ?
RR: Not really. I treat it like fuel for my body. Food should be sensitive and tasty and close to how Nature made it, in terms of colour and shape. I don’t like over-cooked, over-spiced food. You can’t murder the tastes and colours. I used to drink whisky earlier, then rum was my favourite, then wine. Ab main single malt mein Coke dalke peeta hoon!
ANITA KAUL BASU: Are you a loner?
RR: I need people in my life. I can’t live alone. There was a time when I never had a steady girlfriend, just flings. But I knew I had to settle down, have a family. All that wasn’t my world. My first marriage, however, broke down. Indian women, at least the bulk of them, don’t become good life partners. This is something you can’t suppress. With Indian women, once they become mothers 80 per cent of the sex is gone. Different people have different needs. And mine just did not match with those of my former wife. Basically, I’m a very shy person. Especially when I have to talk in front of people. I’ve learnt now. It’s not as bad as it used to be.
AKB: Do you find easier to talk to women or men?
RR: Women. With women you need to be gentle, kind and nice. And there is no space to be gentle in this profession.
AKB: I know you’re blessed with an awesome talent. What makes for a perfect picture for you? The light, the subject, a particular emotion, the time of day, your mood—?
RR: No, yaar! There’s no being blessed and all that. It’s hard work. You have to make yourself available 100 per cent—physically, mentally, spiritually. You have to be intuitive, instinctive and wait for that moment where you make a “connection.” You have to be able to merge with that moment and click. And when you click there’s that moment of total fulfillment from top to toe and, most importantly, within.
AKB: Yes, but you have to have it inside you—there has to be a divine touch. Otherwise all of us would be amazing at our work!
RR: I don’t feel gifted. Those that search are blessed. It needs tapasya [dedication, severe self-discipline]. It’s like kan-kan mein bhagwan. Our job is not to be god but to connect with the divine. God is everywhere . . . you need to reach out, dig deep, seek that connect. There are instances where everything comes together for me in a perfect frame. Geniuses are not born. They are so because they have connected, they have worked hard. But just that one connect is not enough. You have to re-invent, be reborn, again and again, keep digging. Find more and more. The well is never-ending.
AKB: But not everyone is fortunate enough to make that connect. They simply don’t know how to or are closed in.
RR: They have to make themselves fortunate. You have to be available to make that connect all the time. It’s tough but not impossible. When that connect will happen is not predictable—there’s no determined pattern to it. It comes in a flash and you must be awake to be touched by it. Right now I am doing a book on musicians, the legends in our lifetime. Now, a Ravi Shankar or a Bhimsen Joshi could have been a very ordinary mortal but they applied themselves . . . in logon ne tapasya kar kar ke apne ko us level pe pohnchhaya ki [they have worked so dedicatedly and with such intense devotion to reach a level so that] they do not remain mere mortals but become extraordinary people who have made that connect time and again.
AKB:Your pictures are synonymous with music. There is an intrinsic connect . . . they co-exist in the same space, in the same frame—
RR: I should have been a musician but fate decided otherwise. Also, it’s strange you should notice that. Do you remember the big feature I did for India Today, around the time you were there? Well, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi had this big concert and I remember meeting him after that. He came up to me and I said, “Bravo, Panditji! That was wonderful! I heard you sing after so many years.” He grandly proclaimed, “But there was one thing missing with my music, my song—your photographs! Every picture you take, Raghu, resounds with music!” That was such a huge compliment and really, so true. I cannot imagine any of my photos without an invisible music score in the background or in the actual forms and subjects that constitute them.
AKB: Do you always develop a relationship with your subject before the final click? Is there a heart-mind-and-soul connection?
RR: The connection comes from above. And there are times when things start falling together for you, for that perfect frame. You were not anticipating that direction—suddenly, an element you had not bargained for or schematically planned for, arrives in a particular situation and that perfect moment is formed. This picture of little starlings picking up grain from the floor could have been a good picture but became a perfect one. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a crow flew in and created a huge empty circle in the middle of the starlings to peck at his share . . . it was startling!
AKB: Is there a perfect moment? You know, the kind that comes in a flash and vanishes in a wink? Or are you a photographer who composes his frames—waits and “creates” that perfect picture?
RR: I never “compose.” Invariably, the so-called perfect picture composes itself. There are times when I could be waiting for hours for all the elements to arrive. Sometimes I begin with a frame in mind, aim and suddenly the magic begins . . . a cloud shifts, a face appears from nowhere, a dog whizzes past, a crow descends among pigeons, an expression changes and the odhni flies in a gust of wind. It’s really god in each of those moments. For instance, this picture [shows one of a black bird among a circle of little brown starlings]—the little birds were pecking at the grain and there was a strange symmetry in the way they were arranged on the ground. Just as I was about to click, a big bird flew in and landed in the centre. The little birds made way, creating a perfect empty circle between them and the big bird. I clicked and at that very instant the big bird flew away. It was amazing!
AKB: Yet there are pictures you have to take. News, features, commissioned ones. Have there been moments that have stirred you, shaken you—moments you’ve felt terribly emotional about?
RR: It’s the human expression, the human energy that expresses so much through body language, through the eyes, through different gestures—and that happens in any field of human activity. In those situations, I have responded instinctively. That is the true moment of creativity. It is never a picture that is prefigured or a picture that is intended. But along the way it all comes together. There have been times when I have had to take pictures of death, devastation, sadness, cruelty . . . But I have very seldom got emotionally involved. You have to be the chronicle, you cannot turn into the subject. Be it the Bhopal tragedy, Mrs Gandhi’s death, the sadness on the faces at the Varanasi ghats . . . old, poor people fighting the elements . . .
AKB: But you must connect with your subjects at some level?
RR: I am the outsider as well as the insider. I am a stranger and I am also part of them. It’s a paradox, at once difficult to understand and yet simple to assimilate. There remains an unseen, unplanned connection of the body, mind and soul. The spiritual connection to things around you is there right from your childhood. As you grow older, if you allow it, it grows with you and becomes a part of your overall game plan.
AKB: You have taken pictures of almost everything I can think of, without limiting yourself to one particular area—industrial, portrait, fashion, landscapes. What distinguishes a Raghu Rai picture?
RR: I have a lot of contradictions within myself and these are manifest in my pictures. I cannot be slotted. I won’t allow myself to be rooted and branded. I follow my heart. I come across different moments and I respond to them instinctively, no matter what the subject. To me, my country is my whole world. My pictures are a mirror of my world, my country and my people. I have never taken pictures anywhere else. Yes, I have done some fun projects with friends and publishers but never as a serious work of art. In India, I am myself. I can sniff around with my eyes shut and yet see and connect. In that sense I am rooted and I enjoy every bit of that rootedness, since that is my life source. What it means is that if you don’t have a house, a home, then you cannot give love, devotion and dedication. If you can’t give that to yourself and the world you inhabit, then what are you going to give to the world?
AKB: There’s a correlation between great cinema and great photography—well, the visual art bit.
RR: Great cinema scores in many ways. When the dialogue comes together, the characters fall in place, everything is in place. And as you start to shoot, things start moving for you and then, when things are happening, within those happenings you find yet another expression related to the concept of your story. Then you let it take off from those defined concepts—that’s where you make great cinema. Because then you’ve included the unknown and the unconscious. Because everything is conscious.
AKB: My image of you is of this crazy man who is just flowing all the time. You must have had some really funny photos—have they ever made you laugh? Have there been ever been moments or photos like that?
RR: Of course, yes, there are many pictures. Humour is very essential in life. The difference is, it’s not humour for humour’s sake—it’s humour with irony about life. No matter how intensely sad or griefstricken a person may be, he or she is still capable of a smile.
AKB: What did you learn from Mother Teresa?
RR: To be 100 per cent because that’s what she was, in any given situation . . . with ordinary people, with rich people, with small people, with ministers, even with sick people. She gave her all, her emotions and what she shared of them were the same for everyone, irrespective of social status or importance. None of that made any difference with her. Some time during 1984–85, when I mentioned that I’d like to do a book on her, she said “No, there’s no need, there are so many books already. You’ve done one book in the 70s.” I explained then why there was a strong need at that point in time for me to do such a book, so she said, “All right. I’ll do my prayers and I’ll let you know.” My instant response was, “Mother I’ve done my prayers and the answer is ‘yes.’ ” And Mother said, “All right, we’ll do it.” It took me several years to understand this . . . my mention of my prayers being complete had been an instant emotional response to the situation. Maybe it was the truth. Maybe I had indeed prayed, somewhere within myself. Mother had two aspects to her life: her work and her prayer. And the prayer aspect was extremely important to her, that “connection” was something very precious. She would pray so that she could serve yet some more. So when I told her that I too had partaken of that precious prayer and that the answer had been “yes,” she had the same respect for my prayers also. That was such an incredible gift for me, to have my prayers compared to those of the Mother. There is so much one can learn from such a lesson. She was the most amazing lady.
AKB: Your weakness?
RR: Many, many, many. Is there any human with no weaknesses whatsoever?
AKB: Is there something you haven’t been able to conquer?
RR: Loss of hair!
AKB: I don’t mean externally. Why is hair so important, anyway?
RR: Absolutely, my dear! Listen to me. Here and there you too must have noticed signs of age but look at your bloody hair—you still have enough. Damn you, if half of it had fallen off then you’d understand! I’m going to be wearing a cap, dammit! Look at you, you still have hair!
AKB: Best thing is to knock it off completely.
RR: See, it’s like this. Some people have a nicely-shaped head so it doesn’t matter if they lose hair. They can show off their bald pates. But my head is not well-shaped at all.
AKB: Arrey, how do you know?
RR: I know it! I am a man of aesthetics. I can figure out what suits whom.
AKB: Any one thing you are not being able to conquer or not being able to cope with?
RR: I haven’t turned into a complete saint. Not yet.
AKB: And that is the only desire left?
RR: No, I like ease and luxuries. I like to be pampered. I like to be loved. Because I’m a very loving person. When I work, I enjoy myself thoroughly and I work very hard. I don’t know how important it is all going to be, whether it will turn out to be very precious and important to me. Because my understanding, my connections, my sensitivity, my responses are different. And what I do should eventually be very fulfilling for me, as a human being. As a creative human being.
AKB: We’ve talked about composing a picture in your mind, that perfect frame in a single click.
RR: No. I don’t compose anymore because when you compose, it becomes decomposed after a while (sic). The picture in a sense must compose itself at that moment and then disappear.
AKB: Are you saying that you’ve never ever “composed” a picture? I am not talking about your journalistic pictures. I am talking about the ones that come from your heart.
RR: Yes, I could have waited for elements to arrive and things to happen, but you cannot depend on that all the time. There are moments when you land up, you know the magic is happening, you grab it and it’s over. And there are other moments when you work through situations, you sit down, you study, you wait and then something starts building up. There are all kinds of ways of doing it and getting it. Koyi hisaab nahin hai ki kab kahaan kya ho jaye [There is no accurate method of predicting what will happen at which time.]
AKB: You’ve had some very interesting moments that have really moved you, shaken you, stirred you, where you felt that it was a picture that was intended.
RR: You know, when you talk of a picture that you never intended and yet it happened, that takes place only when you respond out of your instincts. And that is a true moment of creativity. Everything else is stale, everything else is conscious, everything else becomes common.
AKB: So have these moments been rare?
RR: Of course. Main tapasvi nahin hoon. [I am no saint.]
AKB: What is your biggest sin?
RR: For me, sin is not only to do with corruption, money, chori or rape. Those are mundane things. For me, a person who receives the “Light,” a person who sees the possibilities that light brings and the signals it gives and yet does not follow that path—he is a sinner and what he is doing is a sin. I look for love and live for it . . . not only towards human beings but for everything. That is tapasya for me. Baaki rahi general baatein. Mujh mein chhal nahin, kapat nahin, main beimani nahin karta, main har ek ke saath upfront rehta hoon [I am without guile, I am without deceit, I am never treacherous, I am upfront with everyone] and I try to be concerned. I’m not very giving but I’m not bad either.
AKB: Your pictures have achieved the status of paintings around the world. They are in prestigious museums in Paris and New York. Collectors have realized that photographs are windows to the world around us. What significance does that hold for you?
RR: I haven’t actually been fond of exhibitions but now I’ve started doing them although I still feel they are not so important for me. Even today. Exhibitions are a big production number, a huge affair to set up. It’s like marrying off your daughter. Each takes 3-4 months to prepare. Especially in Hindustan where you don’t have the minds and the eyes to really read everything in a picture. It’s a fashionable thing in India to go to shows. People just glance through the photographs. Even the best of editors and the best of buyers are incapable of understanding it. Photography is very misunderstood. People think they have seen the photographs and their job is done.
I travelled all over the world in 1970. That’s when people took note of my pictures and various museums approached me. I told them I’d send them a selection when I got home but I never did. Later, I held my first exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art. Some of my pictures were acquired by foreign buyers and my shows were held at the Bhokabaram Museum in Tokyo, in Capitalino, one of the top museums in Rome. My Bhopal Gas Tragedy exhibition has gone all over the world, the Mother Teresa show also has travelled a lot. And now I have started preparing for a serious show for the first time.
AKB: What do you call a serious show?
RR: We’ll be starting from the Bombay National Gallery of Modern Art and then my publisher in Germany—who’s going to do my big retro book—will have an exhibition in Paris and Germany and other places. So, lots of things are happening.
AKB: You were talking about permanency of pictures, the cataloguing of events and people and documentation. Have you looked on any one picture and felt sorrow and sadness?
RR: Many. There have been many sad moments. The one on the Tsunami, done by another gifted photographer, where you can only see a dead woman’s hand and dead man’s hand lying in a frame on the sand . . . That was very moving.
AKB: Do you hang your own pictures in your house or at the workplace?
RR: I don’t. That, behind you, is a print waiting to be sanctioned for a book cover. I don’t keep my pictures hanging anywhere, neither in my house nor my office. I always have other people’s pictures on my walls!
AKB: Apart from your pictures, what would you leave behind when you go?
RR: I’ve never thought like that. I would like to live my life with honesty, love and passion and be close to my dear ones in the best possible way. And when I take my pictures, I do so with all my love and passion. What happens to them doesn’t concern me. After capturing the moment, I’m free of it. I have never maintained a library of my pictures. I must have binned some of my best works. It’s really crazy, but I work for that moment, that minute of passion and devotion that I capture in every frame. After that it ceases to exist for me.
AKB: Anywhere in the world you haven’t been?
RR: I have travelled a lot and yet not enough. But it doesn’t matter to me. The one place I love going back to is my farm near Delhi. That is my sanctuary, my world. I will never tire of it.
*Anita Kaul Basu is a New Delhi based television producer. Before switching over to the electronic media, she was on the editorial team of India Today news magazine. She is presently Director, Synergy Communications, a television production house known for its slick award-winning quiz and game show series.