Raghu Rai’s office in Mehrauli, Delhi, is full of photographs — the most striking ones are signed originals by Henri-Cartier Bresson and his wife Martine Franck, co-founders of the prestigious international photo agency Magnum, of which Rai remains the only Indian member to date. The 71-year-old photographer, who has been making images for nearly 50 years now, has begun the process of putting together and editing the material for a new book, titled Sacred Rivers. His last, Trees, published by Photoink, was a homage to nature. “In the last eight to 10 years, I have moved away from theme-based photographic work. Nature takes me to places where the experiences are intimate and intense. I love the fury of the river and the rain together, having witnessed it on many occasions during my travels. With nature’s grace, today I am a free man, in many ways,” he says.
Through his journeys on assignments in the last four decades, Rai often stopped to photograph rivers across India. On many occasions, he found the rivers dirty, full of stench and yet constantly inhabited by people who had endless faith in their existence: “When I saw this kind of faith, I realised that it takes you beyond historical and geographical contours. It didn’t matter how polluted and static the rivers had become, given the kind of human intervention that they see on a daily basis,” he says.
Sacred Rivers will contain photographs from nearly five decades worth of shooting. How has he managed to look through years of photographs? Rai says that he isn’t old school and embraces the digital medium with as much ease as he does film. In the last three years, his team has been digitising his work, making his archives available to him much faster than before.
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While talking about the scale of Rai’s Sacred Rivers and his love for nature, the conversation moves to the work of another great photographer Sebastião Salgado. Eight years ago, the Brazilian undertook a massive project across continents to bring to light the mountains, oceans, rivers and forests that humans seem to have forgotten in their quest for modern life. The work, now a major exhibition and book titled Genesis, is a celebration of earth in the truest sense and through its photographs, a reminder that over 40 per cent of the planet is still the way it was at the time of its formation. It premiered at the Natural History Museum in London last year. Salgado maintains that in Genesis, his camera was the medium through which nature addressed him.
Rai and Salgado have been old friends; the former in deep appreciation of the latter’s latest work, especially the scale of its production. “My work around nature is primarily centred on human energies. However, unlike Salgado, India is my whole world,” he says. Rai admits he becomes as homesick as a little boy when he spends more than five days on a shoot, no matter where he is. “Years ago, I asked Sebastião how he managed to travel weeks and months on end and he told me that he always carried his home with him wherever he went. He has the capacity. I can’t do that.”
Rai recollects a photograph he made when he travelled to Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh amidst heavy rains. He spotted the Narmada river, in spate, and as if its path was infinite. Skeptical of going ahead with the shoot, he saw that the last plateau in the ghats was under nearly six inches of water, and various idols lay submerged. “There was a sheet of water and like magic, women seemed to be walking on it, going on with their rituals. I gave up trying to protect my lens from the rain, letting the raindrops merge and reflect elements on to the photograph,” he says. Another recollection is from years ago, after witnessing the havoc of cyclones in Andhra Pradesh. Rai remembers the sky and the landscape as beautiful, in spite of the damage that seemed irreversible. “I felt like nature was like a small child who hurled up a storm and then slept silently after a tiring day of mischief,” he says.
Rai will also see two major shows this year, one in Hong Kong and another in Switzerland. He has just finished editing the second installation of Trees, this time in colour. His book on the Kumbh Mela is fresh off the press. And in a major departure from his India work, a new book titled And the World is underway, bringing together for the first time, photographs from his travels around the world.
After nearly half a century of photographing, Rai says his passion is much stronger than it ever was —much like his faith. And what keeps it going? “I have discovered that my faith lies in the eyes of the people I photograph and that intensifies my journey.”
Mukherjee is a Delhi-based photographer