City Library – Raghu Rai’s Collection of Books, Mehrauli
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The first impulse is to click his gaze, zoom up the photo on the screen and study it in detail. These eyes of Raghu Rai have not only recorded some of contemporary India’s most historic moments, but have also managed to penetrate into the very essence of those datelines. Such as the Bangladesh War, India Gandhi’s assassination, the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Among many memorable images, this “trained civil engineer” has given the world iconic portraits of Mother Teresa, as well as some of the most moody images of Delhi— recall that black and white photo of a man diving into the deep well of the medieval Agrasen ki Baoli, against a backdrop of the Connaught Place skyline.
How can we see the world like Raghu Rai and click his kind of photos?
By going to his Instagram? @raghurai.official has less than 500 posts.
By leafing through his 60 plus books? Not all are easily traceable.
One additional way is to check out the books of other photographers that Raghu Rai keeps for company. Hundreds of them line up his Mehrauli office, where his colleagues are currently archiving his entire oeuvre, a work of 60 years entailing “millions” of negatives. (His first photo, of a baby donkey, appeared in 1964).
Here’s a snap survey of volumes randomly plucked out of their shelves at his office one recent evening. Look at this precious edition of René Burri’s One world. The opening page has the Swiss photographer’s handwritten inscription, dated 1989: “for Raghu and Meeta with love” (Meeta is conservation architect Gurmeet S. Rai). Next, a gigantic edition of legendary Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado’s book Gold: Serra Pelada Gold Mine; it too is autographed. “Salgado’ is my yaar,” says Raghu Rai. Ditto, a copy of Raymond Depardon’s Voyages, inscribed in French.
Also spotted, India’s most distinguished photographers. Dayanita Singh’s classic Myself Mona Ahmed, Raghubir Singh’s book on Ganga. Other shelves, other evocative titles: The Smell of Longing, The Moon Watch, Threads & Voices, Bronzed, Half Past Autumn.
The one photographer our master photographer mentions most passionately was from France—-“Henri Cartier-Bresson was instinctive, blessed by the divine… His work has given us many possibilities and references… above all he was a grand human being.”
Even so, Raghu Rai never tried to be a Cartier-Bresson. He doesn’t want any of us to be a Raghu Rai either. “Try to be what you are, bring your own flavour and energy into the photos you click.”
A colleague now appears with a series of old negatives, enquiring about their details. The photographer instinctively picks up a magnifying glass, holds it in front of the negatives, and transports his magical gaze into the long-ago memories of those clicks.
Seeing through Raghu Rai