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Raghu Rai

Indian Contemporary Artist
Born 1942, Jhhang, Pakistan
Lives and works in New Delhi

Raghu Rai is one of the most well known photographer and photo-journalist from India. He is celebrated for his intensive coverage of India over the past five decades, captured the public imagination with his insightful photographs, known for capturing the 'decisive moment' on film. He is also known to cover a wide range of subjects from Mother Teresa to Khajuraho, preferring to never shift from an Indian landscape.


Civil Engineer by training

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Took on the role of documenting a transient India

From Indira Gandhi to Mother Teresa, to Bhopal's gas tragedy victims, Raghu Rai has played a part in building up the collective memory of the masses with his widely distributed images that have documented crucial moments and figures of contemporary history. Raghu Rai took up photography in 1965, and a year later was taken up as the chief photographer of The Statesman. Rai continued at the newspaper for the following decade till 1976, when he left The Statesman to work as a photo editor for a weekly news magazine called Sunday, published from Kolkata. By then, Raghu Rai's work had been spotted by Henri Cartier Bresson, the master of the craft. Henri Cartier Bresson had come across Rai's exhibit in Paris in the year 1971, and nominated Rai to join the photo collective Magnum Photos that he co-founded previously.

Raghu Rai continued to work for another decade till in 1980 he left the magazine to join India Today, currently one of India's most recognized news magazines as Picture Editor/Visualizer/Photographer during its formative years. Raghu Rai in the past two decades specialized in covering several socio-political aspects of India in his reportage. He has produced around 18 books in 18 years, including the iconic Delhi, The Sikhs, Calcutta, Khajuraho, Taj Mahal, Tibet in Exile, India and Mother Teresa.

Raghu Rai, 2005, taken near Jama Masjid in Delhi,digital print.

Despite the thematic variability, Rai maintains the local context in his works

Raghu Rai's focus remains inwards, and he's one of the few artists who have covered India as their subject so extensively. His topics are far apart when it comes to approach or subjects, even though they have the common root and thread to India. Raghu captures India in all its complexities and contradictions from the cityscapes of Kolkata and Delhi to which he has dedicated entire books, to portraitures and documentation of the Sikhs as a community and Mother Teresa.

Raghu Rai, 2004, A senior wrestler getting a massage from his colleagues, Howrah Bridge, Kolkata, digital print.

Capturing the decisive moment - movement in Raghu Rai's works

Rai believes in the importance of the telling detail of the moment caught on camera: the unique moment that gives greater meaning to the general context. “Either you capture the mystery of things or you reveal the mystery," he explains. "Everything else is just information.” Raghu Rai has been known to say. This is pertinent in his image of the Bhopal gas tragedy that went on to define it in public imagination.

Raghu Rai, 1972, Black and White Reflections, taken in Old Delhi, Chawri Bazar, digital print.

Rai's significant project about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

He did an extensive documentary project for Greenpeace on the chemical disaster at Bhopal in 1984, and its lasting effects on the victims. The results of this project were curated in a book and displayed in three exhibits that have been touring Europe, America, India and Southeast Asia since 2004, which was incidentally the 20th anniversary of the disaster. The exhibition was done by Raghu Rai with an altruistic motive of creating awareness about the Bhopal gas tragedy and supporting the victims of the tragedy, many of them who remain uncompensated and continue living in the contaminated environs of the affected region.

Raghu Rai, 1984, Rai's coverage of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Victims for Greenpeace, digital print.

The significance of Raghu Rai as a symbol for photography in India

Rai was awarded the Padmashri award in 1971, one of the highest civilian awards in India rewarded to a photographer. Post Rai, one photographer has been known to have received the Padma Shree, Nehruvian era photographer Sunil Janah, known for his art photography. Raghu Rai’s work has been expensively documented nationally as well as in international quarters. BBC and National Geographic got together and created a documentary on him in the earlier half of the 2000s, as a part of “The Greatest Photographers of the World” series.

His works are part of the permanent collection of reputed museums like Bibliothic Nationale, Paris, National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and in other private collectors’ spaces and museums.  He has had photo essays published in some of the world’s leading international magazines and newspapers like Time, Life, GEO, Le Figaro, Le Monde, Die Welt, The New York Times, The Independent, The New Yorker, etc. He has also exhibited his works worldwide, for instance, in places like London, Paris, New York, Hamburg, Prague, Tokyo, Zurich and Sydney.

Raghu Rai, Profile of Mother Teresa, digital print.