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St Teresa through Raghu Rai’s eyes, again

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-03-2017 Vangmayi Parakala

Raghu Rai already has three books on Mother Teresa to his credit. The first was published in 1996, a year before her death, a second in 2003 and the third in 2005. Now, six months after her canonization by the Vatican as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Rai has published a fourth book.

Without undermining the photographer’s devotion to the subject, one could legitimately wonder if Rai—who received the lifetime achievement award at the ministry of information and broadcasting’s 6th National Photography Awards on Wednesday—would have anything new to say about the Mother. But Saint Teresa Of Calcutta: A Celebration Of Her Life & Legacy doesn’t seem to suffer from any such doubt. The book, which opens with Rai’s introduction and preface to each of the three sections, begins with the canonization, moves on to retrospectively record her life’s work, and ends with photographs of her legacy.

Saint Teresa Of Calcutta—A Celebration Of Her Life & Legacy: Aleph Book Co., 148 pages, Rs1,499.

“We decided to start with the canonization: It reminds people, ‘Oh, Mother was a saint,’ a quick, contemporary response to the question of who the Mother is,” says Rai, as he organizes numerous large prints of his photographs at his studio in Mehrauli, Delhi.

From among the plethora of bright colourful prints, a sole black and white peeks out. It is, coincidentally, the opening portrait of Saint Teresa: a close-up of the Mother’s heavily lined face, eyes closed, hands folded tight, deep in prayer. “Isko Mother waley mein rakh do (keep these with the Mother lot),” he instructs an aide.

The canonization happened in September but, back in 2003, Rai had titled his second book Saint Mother: A Life Dedicated. He explains why: “She’s always been a saint for me. The Vatican just took another 10 years to recognize that.” No wonder then that last year, when Rai was invited by the Missionaries of Charity to cover the canonization, he felt it was a “bulawa (summoning), that made me feel like my journey with Mother has completed a full circle”.

‘I could see her everywhere,’ says Rai, talking of when he was photographing the crowd during the canonization.

“I could see her everywhere,” he says. And true to this sentiment, the Mother features in almost every photograph of the crowds at the ceremony in the book’s first chapter: A huge portrait hung from the cathedral is omnipresent; in others, the faithful carry sculptural dolls in her image.

In striking contrast, the first few pictures from the next section of the book, titled “Her Life And Work”, do not include the Mother at all. “We are creating an introduction to the Calcutta where Mother was needed. These were taken in the 1970s,” he says.

From these photographs, the access that Rai enjoyed is clear: He followed the Mother not just on trips across the country, but also inside Nirmal Hriday, the home she set up in Kolkata’s Kalighat. As Rai observes, she interacted with all sorts of different people: priests, Hindu and Christian, women in saris and skirts, the sick and the healthy.

‘This is Calcutta of the 1970s—there were helpless people, in distress, tensed. This was the place where the Mother was needed.’

The access, though, did not come easy. The first picture he took at the home, in the early 1970s, of three nuns in prayer, made Mother Teresa quite furious. Rai had sneaked away with his camera while his then editor, Desmond Doig of Junior Statesman, and the Mother were deep in conversation. “She was so angry! She said, ‘What on earth are you doing here?!’” Rai recalls. “I told her the sisters in prayers looked like angels to me, and that I just had to take their pictures.”

Rai’s undoubtedly masterful monochromes, however, seem orphaned without captions or context. Which is a shame because, notwithstanding the photographer’s obvious personal and spiritual connect with his subject, the book loses out on vital background information.

‘At Nirmal Hriday, there’s now a barely 2.5ft statue of the Mother. That’s the exact way and place where she used to sit and pray.’

Over the course of this interview, Rai realizes this. “We should have had some captions somewhere,” he says, while explaining that the photograph of Mother Teresa with Indira Gandhi was taken right after she received the Bharat Ratna in 1980.

‘When speaking with you, she always looked into your eyes. She would peer into you. (She was) a connected soul.’

There are many other photos that could have benefited from such annotation: of local performers welcoming her in Assam, of a makeshift camp where she was working with a team of sisters—after the Nellie massacre in Assam in 1983, I learn—and of her hugging children and adopting them after the violence. Each of the photos may be worth a thousand words, but a few specific sentences would have certainly heightened the reader’s engagement.

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