Books: The right frame of mind

The pandemic has been a time of extremes for most people. While for some it’s been a time of extreme sadness and uncertainty, there are others who thank the pandemic for helping them make life-changing decisions, or for the fact that the sudden halt in their hectic schedules actually helped them go back to old, unfinished projects that needed attention.

In his centenary year, Raghu Rai has released a book of never-before-seen portraits of the late auteur Satyajit Ray, that he took three decades ago
In his centenary year, Raghu Rai has released a book of never-before-seen portraits of the late auteur Satyajit Ray, that he took three decades ago

Celebrated photographer Raghu Rai certainly has the pandemic to thank for giving him the time to go back to his huge collection of unused and unpublished pictures. “Since a restless, creative explorer with boundless energy, like me, can’t afford to sit idle so, during those months of meditative isolation, I decided to dig into my archives, into all that I had photographed in the last 50 years and in the last 18 months, I have managed to curate a dozen books on different themes and subjects that I have covered,” reveals Raghu Rai with a hearty laugh as I catch up with him for a quick chat just before the release of one of his books, co-authored with Emmanuel Lenain, the Ambassador of France to India.

A photograph by Emmanuel Lenain, the French Ambassador to India
A photograph by Emmanuel Lenain, the French Ambassador to India

French connection

Titled To France-In India, the book release (that happened on April 26 at Alliance Francaise de Delhi) also marks the beginning of a month-long exhibition showcasing some of the pictures taken by Raghu Rai and Emmanuel Lenain.

France holds a special place in Raghu’s heart and he refers to it as his ‘eternal muse’. His love for the country is evident when he says, “France is like a pilgrimage for me—the camera was invented in France at the academy of fine arts, also known as Academie des Beaux-Arts, Paris.” Interestingly enough, in 2019, he got a call from the very same academy telling him that he was one of 16 photographers from all over the world shortlisted for an award. The very next day he got a call telling him that he’d won! That’s how he became the First Laureate Photographer of the First Edition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts Photography Award –William Klein.

Emmanuel Lenain, the French Ambassador to India
Emmanuel Lenain, the French Ambassador to India

The award was handed over to him at a ceremony which he attended with his wife Gurmeet and daughter Avani. In fact, in the book, the section on France ends with a picture of Raghu receiving the award; the picture was taken by Avani.

But Raghu has another strong connection to France: his unique friendship with one of the world’s greatest photographers, Henry Cartier-Bresson, who had invited Raghu Rai to join Magnum Photos, a rare honour in those days. “Right from my very first exhibition in Paris in 1971, France has always appreciated my work immensely, and I have always seen that good photography and photographers are always respected there. In 1998, a French magazine, Le Figaro had invited six photographers from across the world to capture the Spirit of Paris. I was one of them and was assigned to photograph Montmartare, which truly inspired me. I have always had a special connection with France and that’s why it’s like a pilgrimage for me,” says Raghu whose pictures of France, spread over 100 pages, are a beautiful mix of earthscapes, Montmartre, events, streets of vibrancy, and the various facets of human emotions.

Images of France taken by Raghu Rai
Images of France taken by Raghu Rai

Sharing space and equal number of pages in the book is Emmanuel Lenain, who showcases his love for India through a variety of pictures from that of superstar Rajnikant, to the complicated bylanes of old Delhi, the sacred ghats of Varanasi to the haunting crematoriums during Covid times, to the beautiful landscapes and more.

“I met Emmanuel two years ago at an embassy event. After we got talking, he asked me if he could show me a few photographs. When he asked me if we could do something together, I told him about my love for France and suggested that we do a book and an exhibition together on our passion for each other’s country. And that’s how this book happened,” reveals Raghu, who believes in intuition and instinctive response while choosing photographs as compared to style.

Raghu Rai captures France
Raghu Rai captures France

Besides this, some of the other books that Raghu Rai completed during the pandemic include a book on Himalayas, sacred rivers of India and landscapes of the world. He’s also ready with another book on Bengal, which he says nobody has ever done before. However, one book which is definitely close to his heart is his tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers of all times, someone he fondly calls ‘Dadu’—Satyajit Ray.

Another one of Raghu Rai’s portraits of Satyajit Ray
Another one of Raghu Rai’s portraits of Satyajit Ray

Picture perfect

Filled with love, respect, reverence and the magic of Raghu Rai’s expertise, the book is divided into four sections, showcasing the filmmaker in every possible mood, surrounding and emotion. He has as many as 70 pictures of the filmmaker, shot over a period of just two days, but capturing a lifetime of emotions.

Delhi as seen through Emmanuel Lenain’s lens
Delhi as seen through Emmanuel Lenain’s lens

“Satyajit Ray or ‘Dadu’ as I would call him, was a magnificent man who always showcased dignity, sensitivity and respect for everybody. I have always admired him for it and seen him as a creative artist who picked up the ordinariness of daily life and turned into something magical,” says Raghu.

Recalling his very first meeting with the maestro in 1974 as a young photographer at the National Film Awards, Raghu says that he felt an inexplicable urge to connect with him. Then, in the 1960s he was introduced to Ray’s cinema and was mesmerised by his trilogy Pather Panchali (1955) followed by Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). Eventually, in 1980, he had the opportunity to spend time with Ray on the sets of Ghare Baire.

Emmanuel Lenain’s pictures of Delhi
Emmanuel Lenain’s pictures of Delhi

“It was like a dream come true. I was shooting everything and was scared to miss even a single frame. Even though I felt nervous in his presence, the sensitivity in his eyes, the dignity and affection that he has is reflected in most of his portraits, and is unforgettable,” recalls Raghu.

Unfortunately, after he returned from Kolkata, Raghu realised that many of the photographs that he took of Satyajit Ray in his house were underexposed and underdeveloped, and couldn’t be used at that time. But, thanks to digital technology, the same unused pictures were finally brought to life and the same pictures were used to produce this book.

Raghu Rai
Raghu Rai

“I had been living with guilt for the last 35 years. But when I finally saw the pictures, I realised that I had managed to capture Dadu in different situations, moods and expressions. I had, somehow, shot some of my best photographs of him. And 2021 being his centenary year, the timing was just perfect. My friend and art curator, Ina Puri, helped me in putting the book together perfectly,” says Raghu.

The pandemic may have put constraints on Raghu Rai for sometime, and he feels bad about not taking many pictures during this time, but his restless mind is already planning a book, which he says will be a compilation of some of the best works from photographers covering the pandemic.

We are already looking forward to the same.

From HT Brunch, April 30, 2022

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