Of the Heart Behind the Lens

Raghavendra Rao (1932-2014)

Raghavendra Rao (1932 – 24 December 2014)

On the occasion of the first death anniversary of legendary photographer Raghavendra Rao (1932 -2014), and coinciding with the annual Chennai music and dance season, the Music Academy is hosting a photo exhibition, Laya’ – a collection of 32 images of some of India’s greatest classical artistes. The exhibition (December 23-January 9, 2016) is a tribute to practitioners of classical music and dance, whom Rao photographed, and to the culturally vibrant city of Chennai, in which he spent a large part of his life.

My earliest memories of my childhood include flashes of certain very vivid, often confusing images: my khadi-clad grandfather in the doorway, a little red tape recorder that routinely sang me to sleep, an antique chest that fascinated me endlessly (what was it, really?), and a framed photograph of a lusciously green palm branch. It was a simple photograph, non-dramatic at first blush, and it hung by our window – incorrectly, perhaps, for the afternoon light would cause the picture to be obscured by the diamond-shaped shadows of the window’s grills.

As the years went by, the picture travelled with us to many cities and hung on many walls. When I was curious enough to know of its provenance, my mother exclaimed proudly – almost indignant that I didn’t know of its value – “Rao uncle’s gift!”. As I grew up, I unearthed many more black and white images from her childhood and youth, right up to her wedding, that her beloved neighbour, ‘Rao uncle’, had taken, photographs that even to me, then only a child, were special for how unusual and lyrical they were. In a time when candid wedding photography was unheard of, he painted a picture of my mother as a laughing bride, her face catching the light, chrysanthemum petals on her hair, the background a busy blur.

It was when I was in my teens that I realised what a privilege it was that the works of Raghavendra Rao – iconic photographer, master artist, famed photojournalist – hung in our rooms and lay in our photo albums, setting perhaps unfairly high standards for what we would forever consider a ‘good’ picture.

Born in Mandya, Karnataka, in 1932, Raghavendra Rao went on to study journalism, his strong anti-imperialist sentiments furthered by his education. In Madras, with his neighbour, my journalist grandfather, Rao discussed politics, the state of education and gender equality. Together, they marched to their children’s school to protest corporal punishment, an incident the families recall with a mixture of amusement and pride. They remember how the community of Triplicane, the part of Madras they lived in, was both equally appreciative of the two men’s fearlessness and unsurprised by their ideological leanings – they were, after all, what they called ‘newspapermen’! Rao was a naturally progressive, non-hierarchical man; at a time in which the man of the house often kept away from the mundane life of the household, he took over the cooking from his wife on festival days to ease her of her burden, picked out clothes for his daughter with enthusiasm, and was closely involved in the lives and interests of the young people he was surrounded by.

Rao was no ordinary photographer; he was a raconteur who strung his narrative with poignant, telling, often dramatic visuals. All through his 40-year long career as a photojournalist in The Indian Express, India Today, and, finally, Business Line, Raoji, as he was known to friends and colleagues, took pictures that reflected social change, cultural ethos and political climate. No photograph was merely a photograph; it was an incisive analysis of the times. Though it is his now famous photo of Nehru and Indira Gandhi that propelled him into the public eye in 1961, other pictures truly reflect his insight into society, his keen eye and his wit, like one of several buffalos in a row in front of a sign titled “parallel parking only”! A picture of a woman in a madisaar  (the traditional nine-yard sari) in the Brahmin-dominated agraharam of Triplicane walking alongside a young girl in a skirt and shades was not merely a charming visual – it painted a picture of a society in transition, in which the traditional and conservative and an increasingly westernised new generation peacefully and symbiotically coexisted.

DK Pattammal

Carnatic musician DK Pattammal was celebrated as the first Brahmin woman to have sung publicly.           Credit: Raghavendra Rao


MD Ramanathan

Carnatic musician MD Ramanathan of the booming voice and trademark slow approach. Credit: Raghavendra Rao

Raoji, always liberal, open and nurturing, encouraged curiosity and defied convention, and was a great mentor and teacher to many. He was a courageous photographer, intensely committed to his work and his subjects, and unafraid of criticism. He consciously shunned accepted western sensibilities and chose to adopt a more native, culturally appropriate paradigm. Be it his contemporaries at The Indian Express or the team he guided at Business Line, anybody who ever came in contact with Raoji admired his unique approach to his work. Raoji infused a freshness and humanity into the otherwise stale and tired world of objective news reporting. His colleagues recount the rapport he always established with his subjects, first as a fellow human and only then as a photographer; this he urged them to do before they whipped out their cameras at the sighting of a photo-op. In a world thirsting for the sensational, his creative process emphasised emotion and sensitivity, ensuring that his photographs did not remain mere images but compelling stories of human suffering, pain and joy.  He admitted to having little recollection of scoops or exclusives, instead treasuring only his “encounters with people who […] made life richer”. He spoke often of “a vibration” he felt with his subjects, a vibration he believed essential to genuine artistic expression. What resulted were moving visuals, richly evocative and profoundly expressive.

Apart from his career as a photojournalist, Raoji’s work as an artist spanned many realms of life: politics, business, art; he believed they were all interlinked, as indeed they are. A great lover of music and dance, he revelled in meeting and photographing practitioners of the arts. As he himself once wrote, every picture to him was a dynamic story, an encounter with an extraordinary person, an experience to cherish. It is impossible to look at his portrait of DK Pattammal without seeing the devotion on her weathered, smiling face; MD Ramanathan’s laughter is so real it is infectious; Balasaraswati’s dignified grace is riveting.

Artistes can often be intimidating because of a (sometimes conscious) distance from their audience, but Raoji used his lens and his distinctive technique to make the seemingly inaccessible, almost unreal artiste real, human, and relatable to. This he did by photographing them in their homes, in their roles as everyday people. Rukmini Devi cradles a parrot lovingly; a smiling Leela Samson occupies the lower right corner of a picture that is otherwise all wall; the interplay of light and shade on the bespectacled T. Brinda’s face amplifies her quiet grace; Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer lying back in his easy chair could well be the friendly neighbourhood thaatha (grandfather) whose only greatest need is his morning newspaper. His portrait of Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, however, remains my favourite: the close up of the violinist’s wizened face and bony hands shows him lighting a cheroot, the flame reflected in both lenses of his thick glasses. How poignant indeed, for Dwaram was half blind — for a brief moment now captured for posterity, Raoji had rekindled the dying light in the musician’s eyes.

Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu

Violin maestro Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu known for his soft bowing technique and firm fingering, was one of the first to perform solo instrumental concerts. Credit: Raghavendra Rao

At a time when gadgetry and advanced picture-making technology were neither ubiquitous nor inexpensive, Raoji captured fragments of life and society using his greatest tools, his eye and his open heart, and his most cherished instrument, available light. Every moment was an opportunity for a great picture. My mother recalls traipsing into his house as a nine-year-old on one Diwali day with sweets she was responsible for distributing to the neighbours (and surely with hopes of being fed!). Raoji insisted she wait, and retrieved his camera from the topmost shelf of an open cupboard. The black and white image became The Indian Express Diwali greeting of the year. It hangs on one of our many walls, yellowing, obviously ageing. The photo itself, however, has a timelessness about it, the subject’s face illuminated by the lamps in her hand, an innocence about her recognisably cheap costume jewellery, a childishness about the carelessly placed, off-centre bindi.

For Raoji, the lens was a medium of expression; he was no mere technician, but a true artist. And what art can survive without undying passion? Be it in his gardening, kitchen experiments or using sunlight to create art on bromides, Raoji did it all with zeal and excitement. Not for him the fear of new technology; in his later years, he experimented with apps on an iPad to create new art, and kept in touch with friends and family over the Internet, even seeking out the people for whom he believed he had photographs of value. To my mother’s utter delight, at the age of 80, he re-established direct contact and shared with her his pictures on Whatsapp. “Do tell me what you think, dearest Chimmi,” one message read, using the pet name adopted by family and childhood acquaintances to refer to my mother. It takes an unquenchable thirst for perfection to seek feedback from a layperson, and true greatness to exhibit humility.

Bharatanatyam exponent and choreographer Malavika Sarukkai. Credit: Raghavendra Rao

Bharatanatyam exponent and choreographer Malavika Sarukkai. Credit: Raghavendra Rao

Almost every acquaintance recalls his warmth and hospitality, whether in his humble home in the earlier days of his career or later at his open beach house, ‘Rasa’. I remember visiting him there as a young girl in the late 1990s. “This is Rasheeda’s tree,” he told us with shining eyes, pointing to the tree closest to us, and then, leading my mother by the hand, showed her how “Shanta’s creeper” had flowered. He was referring to the saplings he had requested friends to bring him when he inaugurated his home, saplings that were now young, handsome trees. He was making no conscious ecological statement, as one may be tempted to do today; he simply loved nature so. Sitting on a swing in the garden amidst the plants he tended to so fondly, Raoji charmed the diffident me as he did his many subjects, drawing me out of my shell and asking excitedly after my interests. It seemed impossible to imagine that this warm grandfatherly man had pioneered a genre of photography premised on emotion and intuition, that he was a man of national and global renown; and someone whose work I would, in the future, rarely view without a lump in my throat or an ache in my heart.

In today’s world, in which we are bombarded with images of all kinds, Raoji’s work continues to evoke awe and wonderment at its beauty and power, and a lingering sadness that sensitivity of the kind he displayed is now seldom valued. A year after his passing, the photo exhibition ‘Laya’ seeks to serve as a remembrance of the artist, philosopher and thinker that Raoji was, to celebrate his quiet passion for art and his great insight into the world. When I see the 32 photographs on display being marvelled at by visitors for their simple, lyrical beauty, I cannot help but feel grateful for being initiated into the works of this artist so early on in my life, and I think back to the vivid green palm branch by my living room window and on the glass that covered it, the reflection of the swaying palms outside.

The writer is an Adjunct Faculty Member at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, and a trained vocalist.