The Indians, photojournalist Raghu Rai's new book, traces the journey of the photograph from the humble glass plate and rigid poses in Mumbai's studios to its current avatar of subjects caught unawares on streets
Photography, says lensman Raghu Rai, can capture the soul. And as you flip through the pages of his latest work, The Indians: Portraits From My Album, you see what he means.
In one shot taken in the 1880s by Johnston and Hoffman, two of the earliest British photographers in India, the royal family of Gwalior -- the queen, prince and princess -- pose for the camera. The mother sits regally on a chair, her feet resting on a decorated wooden platform. Her feet turn towards each other, an indication of shyness. Her eyes betray a hesitation, as though she doesn't quite trust the white man asking her to sit still for the photograph.
Human face, painted world. Photographer- Photo Service
Company, Delhi: Photography arrived in India through the East India
Company. Initially, it was heavily influenced by the style of lithographs
and paintings, like this photograph, which Rai dates back to the late
nineteenth century. Only her face is a photograph; the rest of the portrait
has been painted. Rai obtained a glass plate of this image from a
shopkeeper in Pushkar in 2000. The shopkeeper's father had bought
a box full of glass plates like this when the Photo Service Company
was auctioned in the 1950s.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, 1963.
Photograph -- TS Satyan: "Nehru was a very handsome, a very
romantic man -- it shows in this photograph," says Rai. Photos: The
Indians: Portraits from My Album by Raghu Rai; Introduction by John
Falconer by Penguin Studio, an imprint of Penguin Books India
Tribal from the north-eastern states of India. Photographer
- Unknown: Curator-director of the British Library in London, John
Falconer, who has written the introduction to the book, says the British
used the camera as a device to investigate the different ethnicities of
India. This 1880s photograph is of a tribal woman from a North Eastern
state is an example. Rai's collection includes photos of tribal women
from Malabar and Bengal too.
A Nautch Girl, Photographer- Unknown (above) and Girdhari Lal
(below) being photographed in Old Delhi, Photographer- Raghu
Rai: In the book, Rai chooses to juxtapose these two photographs --
one of a Nautch girl that dates to the 1920s (photographer unknown),
and the other of Chandni Chowk resident Girdhari Lal taken in the 1980s.
"The Nautch girl, with her richly embroidered sari and her shy, yet
assured look sits in contrast to the tired old man, who is getting his
photo clicked for identification. Yet the backdrops of the two photographs
look similar; there is a visual connect between them."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (then Finance Minister) at a
Congress Session. Tirupati, 1992. Photographer- Raghu Rai:
While photographing politicians, says Rai, close access is impossible.
But with the aid of a telephoto lens, it is easier to create
photojournalistic portraits, such as this one of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
A Parsi investiture ceremony with the Sudra and the Kusti.
Photographer- Unknown: Another one from Rai's collection, this
photograph was taken in the 1890s. Its original dimensions are 2.5" x 3".
It was enlarged using a bit of restoration technology. In fact, the quality
of restoration is so good that Rai is tempted to hold an exhibition of these
works, placing the original photograph against its enlarged, restored version.
Children of the Pushkar Valley, Rajasthan. Photographer -
Raghu Rai: Taken in 2009, this photograph forms part of Rai's new
work. He plans to spend the next few years touring the rural countryside,
installing a backdrop behind locals -- much like the studio photography
of the camera's early days -- but will depict as much of the scenery as
possible. "This project will be something similar to what the British did
when they documented tribes and indigenous communities," says Rai.
Her young daughter, dressed in equal splendour, looks away from the photographer with soulful eyes, but the young prince looks right into the camera, pleased as punch, as though he can't wait to see this print hung on the walls of his palace.
In the early days of the camera, explains Rai, photography was a lengthy procedure, since it took a long time for the glass plates -- the precursor to film rolls -- to get exposed.
Hence the subjects, very often members of a royal family who would get their portraits shot, would be asked to sit still without breathing for several seconds on end.
However, despite the contrived nature of the photograph, their artful poses belied their feelings. "Our emotions change every second, and the long exposure was a time of introspection. What could emerge therefore was either a self-conscious, a self-indulgent or a self revealing portrait. The long exposures made their emotions and feelings available for all to see," said Rai, in a telephone interview from Delhi.
And while emotions perhaps remain the only historical constant, Rai's endeavour has been to record events, places and people before they disappear.
"After being a photographer for 40 years, you realise that some of those places you photographed once don't exist anymore. And you go back to your photographs and think, Oh my God! This is what it used to be."
Rai admits he is lucky he started out as a photojournalist; a job that required him to scour the streets for interesting shots, besides attending political rallies. Ironically, it was boredom that led him to the profession.
"The year was 1966, I was in my early twenties doing very little, when I decided to visit my brother in New Delhi. He was the head of the photo department of a newspaper, and all his friends were passionate about photography. They'd congregate every evening at home and discuss cameras, lenses and angles," Rai trails off.
His interest piqued, Rai decided to accompany one of his brother's friends to his native village in Rohtak, a small town in Haryana. There, he clicked his first photo -- that of a baby donkey.
The photograph was published soon after in the Times London, and Rai earned an amount that saw him through the month.
"I thought it is not a bad idea to take some more pictures," says Rai.
Over the next 44 years, Rai worked for several national and international publications, making a mark as a photojournalist with a quick eye.
While his iconic photograph -- a child buried in sand in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy -- is not included in this collection, other poignant works find a place. There's a portrait of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray dated 2000, surrounded in a haze of smoke, looking healthier, but perhaps a bit bored.
There are three of former prime minister Indira Gandhi taken between 1967 and 1971, one of Leonid Brezhnev, secretary general to the former Soviet Union, in 1981, and one of General Zia ul-Haq, former president of Pakistan taken in New Delhi in 1987, among others.
Cultural icons MS Subbalaxmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar, and writers Arundhati Roy and J Krishnamurti, find a seat among the famous.
And then, there are soulful photographs of Bangladeshi refugees, with the pain and fear of dislocation written large over their faces.
"There's a freedom to being a street photographer. You find something that nudges you in the head and you think, 'That's special', which is why you click it. All the analysis and philosophy comes later," says Rai.
The Indians: Portraits from My Album by Raghu Rai; Introduction by John Falconer
Published by Penguin Studio, an imprint of Penguin Books India. Price: Rs 4,999