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Raghu Rai and his ways of seeing

An exhibit of 40 years of Raghu Rai’s analogue photography captures his multilayered look at India

Bangle Seller, Varanasi, 2006(Photography courtesy Raghu Rai & PhotoInk. Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

By Vangmayi Parakala

LAST PUBLISHED 24.02.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

A recurring thought when Raghu Rai reflects on photography and his six decades of practice, is that of seeing god.

Bhagwan toh kabhi bhi darshan de sakte hain na, woh aapke assignments pe thodi baith ke intezaar kar rahe hain (God can present himself anytime, he does not wait to do so over an assignment), he says, when disagreeing with the way many photojournalists tend to work today. When explaining why he, at 81, still keeps a camera on him at all times, he says: Kya pata bhagwan kahan baithein hain?

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Okay, let’s try a different track. His secret to a good shot? Invest your body and soul into it, he says. “It’s like what they say, kan kan mein bhagwan hain (god is in every cell)". Again. “What it really means is that you cannot ignore anything," he says. “There is something about everything—if you can connect with that, toh tab darshan hoga (that’s when you see god)".

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For Rai, photography is not just a craft or a career—it is prayer. It is daily ritual by which he sees and captures divinity. Roobina Karode, director and chief curator at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, in Delhi, calls his photographic engagement with the world, an “intense practice" resulting in “prolific output which is rather difficult to contain in a single exhibition".

His Holiness the 16th Dalai Lama, Leh, Ladakh, 1975. (Photographs Courtesy Raghu Rai & PhotoInk Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art)

Yet, that’s precisely the challenge that she and Devika Daulet-Singh, the founder of Delhi-based photo gallery Photoink, have done with the ongoing show, A Thousand Lives: Photographs From 1965-2005.With approximately 300 black and white images from 40 years of Rai’s pre-digital days, this is a “curated slice from his extensive archives," Karode says. “Instead of choosing to go chronological, we chose ‘simultaneity’ to express the breadth of Rai’s vision in capturing India, its land and people, emphasising extraordinary details, contradictions and juxtapositions," she continues, explaining the nature of the show.

The exhibit features shots that Rai is known for, those which, with a characteristic sense and understanding of movement and momentum, capture extraordinary moments in ordinary life. This includes the striking Confessions Of A Wall series, in which Rai turns his eye on a long wall that runs between Daryaganj and Jama Masjid in Delhi, which bore witness to the lives of different people who took shelter near or passed by it. There are also Rai’s iconic portraits of leaders, specifically, two spiritual and two political ones: Mother Teresa, whom Rai photographed closely for over five decades; the Dalai Lama, whom he first met in 1975 and who he says is his “favourite subject to photograph"; former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the Gandhian socialist leader, J.P. Narayan.

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“These pictures capture rare moments and bring forth the view of an insider rather than…a mere observer," says Karode. “The power of Rai’s photographs transport us to another time and space, to lesser known realities, to revelations yet not registered. They unveil many truths that a thousand words might fail to convey."

The exhibition is on till 30 April at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, Delhi