Delhi-based photographer and activist
Paul Saheb is what we all called S Paul. Like many others, he was a self-taught photographer. When he joined The Indian Express as a photographer in 1962, the photo usage in the dailies was not very sophisticated. Kishor Parekh had trained in California and was making waves with his photographs getting credits and also much larger space in the Hindustan Times. In those early ’60s, it was these two photographers who directed the course and changed photojournalism in Delhi. Their photographs were stories in themselves and didn’t need an accompanying text. Paul’s younger brother, Raghu Rai, also landed up in Delhi, and, mentored by Paul, became a photographer who made his own mark starting out in The Statesman. From their accounts, those early years were of friendly rivalry, each ribbing the other and critiquing the other’s photos.
I had got to know Kishor early on as he became friendly with my parents, and produced a large number of dance performance photos of my mother, Indrani, which few people have seen since. I really got to know Paul well through Raghubir Singh in the ’80s. Raghubir would stay with me in Delhi, and the minute he hit town, he would call Paul, fix a meeting over coffee and begin their long photo gossip sessions. Paul loved a good gossip. Always trying any new trick, he told me how he had suggested to Parekh, when he was going to photograph a performance of my mother, that he make multiple exposures on the same frame to evoke the dance. Parekh did that and the photo was a sensation, displayed large, in the Hindustan Times.
I would often meet Paul at Madanjee’s — the photo store in Chandni Chowk. Paul used to stalk those streets almost weekly and, once, had an entire bag of expensive equipment lifted while he sat for a glass of chai on the street.
Paul’s photographic output was prolific. He would photograph flowers, trees, birds, the clouds, landscapes, portraits, the street. But his forte was to catch the little detail and human foible in people. His pictures of people had an affection and warmth which led me to call him a humanist photographer in my lectures. As with many photographers, he was maybe not the best editor and judge of his own photographs the newest always being the best.
Unlike his younger sibling Raghu, Paul did not have a flamboyant personality and never projected himself, though he was full of pride and could be very prickly and got annoyed easily. Some years ago I told him we needed to do a proper retrospective of his work, but since he was so difficult to deal with, it would be impossible. He only laughed at that. We have lost a photographer’s photographer.
Editor, photographer and curator
Paul Saab devoted his entire life to making fine single images, always in pursuit of ‘the best photograph’. He was a true guru, passing on his knowledge and passion to the younger generation, unhesitatingly complimenting them when he saw good work, and scathing in his criticism when he disapproved. I remember our first encounter, when he visited my exhibition at Art Heritage in 1993. After looking at my photographs for the better part of an hour he smiled, nodded silently and left, only to return the next day along with a distinguished art critic. It was wonderful to receive their appreciation. Paul Saab will live on in the memories of those whom he encouraged through his kind words. I am one of them.
Today, India has lost one of its brightest beacons of photography. Paul Saab and my father Kishor Parekh were best of friends and both photojournalists. I daresay it was they who collectively revolutionised the face of Indian newspaper photojournalism in the ’60s. Though both worked for rival newspapers, they would egg each other on a healthy competition and invariably meet every night over a rum and coke, and reflect on the day’s events and who had the ‘better’ picture. Both were equally gracious in their praise if they had been ‘beaten’ for the day. Such was their friendship and professional camaraderie. Though my father died very young, in the early ’80s, Paul Saab, on seeing me, would recall my father with moist eyes, as the “Greatest photographer, greatest human being, greatest friend”…a compliment, I’m sure, my father would have readily echoed for Paul Saab.
The most amazing thing about Paul Saab was that nothing else mattered to him besides photography. The camera was his beating heart outside his body. He would be restless if he did not take pictures on any given day. Even while ailing, he regretted not being able to go out and shoot. It was an intensity that I do not see in any other practitioner of today except perhaps S Paul’s brother Raghu Rai.
Also he was not only a master visual artist, he was a technical wizard too. His prints were immaculately crafted and his technique was precise. A technique that he would readily impart to the hundreds of photographers that trained under him. I had the fortune of meeting Paul Saab almost three decades ago. He was quite happy that I was interested in using flash in my work. I vividly remember him sharing a quick tip on fill-flash photography, which I used in my very next news assignment, and the result was that I won the World Press Award in News Photography for that very picture that year. I owe it all to him.
In today’s time when so much frivolity has crept into photography, dadas like Paul Saab need to be revered till eternity. The respect they gave photography, with the emphasis being on only the photograph and nothing else. No words could replace what was captured within his frame — a case in point for today’s practitioners who rely more on a web of words than the image itself.
I had known Paul Saab for over 40 years. He lived and breathed photography. Everyday, irrespective of rain or sun, he’d go out and shoot. This he did till as long as his health could permit. I spoke to him a month ago when he was bedridden. In his frail failing voice he told me the worst thing for him was that he couldn’t go out to shoot. He nurtured hundreds of young photographers to whom he was always available. In his passing, an era of Indian photography has ended.