Raj Lalwani turns the pages of Raghu Rai’s warm and fuzzy memoir, and is drawn into memories of his own.
Looking at a family album is much like looking into a keyhole and a mirror at the same time. You are invited into the world of another person, but what you often take back are recollections of your own. In Raghu Rai’s similarly titled book, I keep going back to one particular spread. Avani and Papa (Rai) pose for Nitin Rai in the kind of ritualistic portrait that we seem to have forgotten in our modern lives. Facing that beautiful, but simple memory, is this Arbusian photograph of Avani and her younger sister Purvai, posing, with shades, almost as twins, as two other faces with shades stare back at us, from a television that’s on the side. It’s a photo that, for me, is rooted in the history of photography, as it probably doffs its hat to Diane Arbus, but at the same time, it’s a photo that is astonishingly fresh and contemporary.
Raghu Rai’s new book walks multiple worlds and very well could have been multiple books. Work that is culled out from deep within, whether it’s from deep within the archive or the heart, tends to amble across different trajectories. Rai’s edit has made this one kind of book, and you wonder, if in the future, there would be other edits he would make, other approaches he would take.
For instance, what if this book only had photos shot by Raghu Rai? Would that have been a more individualistic narrative on how his extraordinary way of seeing perceives his immediate world? For that is what the book is about, it’s about Rai’s sensitivity to the guts and the peripheries of his existence. But interspersed are photos that include him, shot by other photographers. Him sipping tea as the mother of sunrises takes place in the distance. Him, with photographer friends like Mahendra Sinh and Sebastião Salgado. With artist Himmat Shah. With His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For most other photographers, it may have seemed a little self indulgent, but with Rai, and the public persona he has lived as the country’s most prolific chronicler, these sprinklings may seem like celebrations of a life well lived. As he told me, when I mentioned to him that I wasn’t convinced about the inclusion of these photos, wouldn’t one’s album include oneself?
One cannot deny that peeping into Raghu Rai’s album is not just about experiencing his personal visual musings, but is also a voyeuristic journey into the private life of a very public man. Let’s face it. Rai is the most towering presence in the medium in our country. So while the book is for him, personal catharsis and celebration, for a Raghu Rai fan, it is also part autobiography and celebrity home video. Halfway through the book, I thought to myself that I don’t know anything about these people, about Usha, Nitin, Lagan, Meeta, Avani, Purvai. And yet, I feel that I have known them. The dichotomy of knowing that you do not know, and yet feeling that you can feel, that, for me, is the experience of seeing a Raghu Rai photograph. He doesn’t tell you the entire story, or maybe, tells you several within the same frame, and yet, what you take from the photo, is what it sings to you. It’s like the man carries a transistor in his pocket. Whether he photographs news of strife or daily life, there is always music that emerges from his photos, somewhere in a poetic corner.
Aside from the joy, aside from romance, the book shows you traces of human emotions that plague all our lives. The pain, the regret, the hesitation, the vulnerability. These feelings simmer, at times, making you feel that this could be your family, but the mood always changes to a happier song. As a fan, you yearn to see the imperfections of a charmed life. Sadly, Rai does not bare his soul entirely, but in the process, he touches ours. Like all of us would like to, in our own lives, Raghu Rai shows us his life through rose-tinted glasses.
But what glasses these are… it’s remarkable that in the past fifty years, while he has taken on the mantle of building a visual narrative of our lives, he has also, subconsciously, built a visual narrative of his own life. And as your eye goes to the eye of young Avani staring out of the jeep, as you gaze lovingly at Nitin’s grandpa gazing lovingly at him, as you tilt your head and smile at Maano tilting her head and smiling with the wine, you are drawn in. You become the story, the story becomes yours. There is probably great effort that goes in being effortless, and that’s where Rai shows his mastery. This book may not be a front-foot straight drive like his story-laden hard-hitting work, but it’s a seemingly casual cover drive, one that’s quiet, but gorgeous. You can keep replaying it in slow motion.
I realise that some of these are contradictory thoughts, but the fact is, that ever since I got the book (at time of writing) five months ago, these are churnings and what-ifs that it has stirred in my head. There are books you like, there are books you love, but beyond this, there are books that make you feel, make you ponder, make you question, and reflect, there are books that make your heart feel like a Raghu Rai frame, with several things bursting in it, all at once.
Full disclosure: The book was received by the writer as a gift from the photographer.
First published in Better Photography.