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Lunch with Raghu Rai, Olive Bar, Delhi

25 July 2016

Rai has made a name for himself as India’s most defining photographer, somehow capturing the extremes and vividness of his homeland like no other.

As 74-year-old Raghu Rai rides into the restaurant forecourt on the back of a motorbike with his red cape dancing in the wind, I feel something portentous in the making. Danish existential philosopher, Kierkegaard likened geniuses to thunderstorms, stating, “They go against the wind, terrify people, cleanse the air.” And as the imposing frame of Rai steps off the bike and directs a tirade in Hindi towards the doorman, I wonder just what kind of tempest is rolling in.

Rai has made a name for himself as India’s most defining photographer, somehow capturing the extremes and vividness of his homeland like no other. Despite being a protégé of Magnum co-founder and 20th century master Cartier-Bresson, Rai has eschewed the style and influence of other photographers to forge his own unique philosophy and vision.

We are dining at Olive Bar, in Mehruli, a quiet – by Delhi standards – suburb were Rai lives with his wife Meera. The large yet cosy restaurant recreates the ambience of a Greek tavern with wonky white washed walls, distressed furniture and a Mediterranean terrace. It’s alcoves and nooks make for an intimate and secluded dining experience.

Rai has arrived hungry and is keen to order. As he searches around in his pocket, he realises that he’s forgotten his glasses and can’t read the menu. He calls over the waiter and succinctly tells him what he’s in the mood for: some salad and steamed fish. He switches seamlessly between Hindi and English as we quickly work out the order.

I’m a big fan of Rai’s work and I find myself beaming as he explains, with his deep voice, elongated vowels and richly accented English, how his father dreamed a future for him as a successful engineer. Trying to be the dutiful son, Rai followed his father’s vision halfheartedly. I find it hard to imagine this man, who seems to pulsate with energy, fitting himself into the role of civil engineer in the provinces. Rai is still visibly grateful – he smiles wryly, perhaps for a moment imagining the life that might have been his – that his first job was a fixed term contract for two years which gave him the chance to “run away to Delhi”, where he stayed with his brother, Paul, a photographer.

Unsure what to do with himself, Rai immersed himself in the culture of city life, until one day he went out to take some photographs with his brother’s friend in a nearby village. In the developing room Paul was struck by one of the photographs his brother had taken of a baby donkey in the evening sun and sent it off to The Times in London. The image was published and Rai was paid, by Indian standards quite handsomely. From there, Rai fell into the life that fits him perfectly.

His father was not impressed by his son’s new path, engineering is a highly respected and sought after career in India. Rai leans back in his chair, as he gleefully recounts the story. “Someone asked my father how many children he had and he said ‘I have two sons, I had four but two have gone photographer.’” He deepens his voice and earnestly adds, “Later on when I started doing very well, he was very proud.”

Within one year of taking his first photograph, he was working as chief photographer at The Statesman, a highly respected Indian broadsheet newspaper. I ask him how he achieved this great leap in such a short time and he pulls back, sits up tall and wrinkles his nose as he replies sternly, “I’m very good”.

Our starter arrives, we opted to share a fresh burrata salad, and the waiter dishes it out. I tuck in as Rai pours copious amounts of pepper over his salad. Shifting the focus, I ask about his relationship with infamous photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Rai explains that he had his first exhibition in 1971, in Paris, and that he saw someone hanging around 15 minutes before the show was due to open. With a childlike glee, he leans in to explain, “I saw someone with a Leica [the high quality, light weight film camera synonymous with Cartier-Bresson] in his hand looking very carefully at the pictures” Rai’s voice turns dramatically to a whisper. “I thought that must be him.”

Cartier-Bresson welcomed Rai into the fold of Parisian photography and became a major proponent of his work. It’s often considered that he was a mentor to Rai but with a similar style and outlook it was more of a meeting of minds, with both men famous for capturing a moment when the chaos of life collides within the frame of one image.

Upon returning from a world tour with his exhibition, Rai found a letter from Magnum, the renowned photography agency founded and run by the finest photographers in the world. The letter invited him to join the agency. I sit waiting for Rai to proclaim his joy but his words hang in the air. I ask was he happy, imagining that everybody who’s ever picked up a camera with some yearning to be a photographer, dreams of working for Magnum. He looks me in the eye, “No, I got so scared and I didn’t reply.”

I feel the anticlimax, like when the hero dies at the end of the movie, as Rai quietly explains that he didn’t want to leave his country and doubted whether he was good enough to work with Magnum at all. Rai continued his path at The Statesman, in a comfortable position were he was afforded the rare luxury of being able to pick and choose which stories he wanted to cover. In 1977 Rai became restless and longed for even greater freedom. As he emptied out his desk, he found that six-year-old letter from Magnum.

Ever theatrical, Rai paints a vivid picture as he tells the story, calling Magnum but not willing to give up his newfound freedom, Rai demanded that he be allowed to work only in India and to work at his own pace.

Western-centric commentators have often wondered out loud why Rai never left India to pursue his work in Europe. As the waiter quietly places down our main course, Rai doesn’t miss a beat as he explains why he never even thought about leaving. I’m surprised as this, almost imposing man, confesses to being shy. My expression must betray my doubt as he explains, “Of course these days I can meet people and relate to them but I’ve never been fond of travelling or being on my own. Over the years my love for my country, my intensity and relationship with it is so so wonderful that now I can close my eyes and sniff around and take photos. This is why India is precious to me.”

A lust for life and a joy in capturing the magic of this world go hand in hand for Rai, who has a near religious connection with photography. Yet he has also photographed some horrific events, most tragic of which was in Bhopal. On December 3, 1984. A gas leak at a Union Carbide factory killed thousands, injuring and killing many thousands more over the following months and years. The gas plant began leaking at midnight and when Rai arrived at 8am, “the dead and sick were being brought out. There was death all around. So I was very quick taking pictures and capturing the intensity and sadness of the tragedy.”

You might think, with some justification, that this would be the most difficult assignment in Rai’s portfolio; but you’d be wrong. When pressed, he answers without hesitation, “Mother Teresa. She was most wonderful... and most demanding.” Among his most lauded images, his photographs capture in light and dark, a woman bent over by time with her gaze firmly fixed in space looking for answers, cradling with tenderness those at the beginning of life and those at the end.

Rai has spent a large part of his career trying to override the preconceived ideas of the thinking mind and photograph out of “sheer instinctive response”. Deeply passionate about what he sees as “a lack of seriousness in contemporary media and an over inflation of conceptual photography”, Rai has created the Raghu Rai Centre for Photography. A school where he can “ignite those creative moments in individuals and put them in touch with what’s important and special in creativity.”

I’ve been happily swept along by his enthusiastic storytelling for two hours when his gusto starts to fade. Taking an overt look at his watch, he clears his throat and asks very politely if he may “take my permission.” I reluctantly oblige him and as I watch his tall frame leave, his cape billowing behind him, I rest back in my chair and close my eyes, both electrified and exhausted... as if I’ve just been expelled from a tornado.

Words: Kate Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate

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