Do you select your photobook themes and release according to the sociopolitical context of the times? If so, where does Tirupati fit in?
Yes, sometimes, when it’s required. For the first 42–45 years, it was all film. I wasn’t just shooting a story, but capturing the journey there and back, the people I met. Tirupati was first shot 40 years ago, in black and white. I thought it was a very good idea. Then, about eight years ago, a British magazine asked for a story on its donations and business aspects. Four years later, I was in Chennai for something else and decided to visit it again, because the experience is so powerful. By then I had gathered so much material! Finally in 2018, I went especially for Brahmotsavam, and spent a week photographing the festival, its activities and people’s participation. This is how the book was created.
Were there any worries of imposing upon private moments between worshippers and the divinity?
(laughs) I am not an aggressor. I am a gentleman. Over the years you learn discipline and body language, an intuitive response. When you walk towards a subject, your movement should be humble and gentle, as if you are melting into the scene. In any case, a photographer has to pick up a camera, be upfront, and take pictures. But one must learn the art of being sensitive.
Religion is a passionate subject. Should artists detach themselves from positive bias when capturing such themes? Or are these feelings important to the process?
I was born in a Hindu family, but I don’t frequent temples or other places of worship, or feel attached to a single god. My faith lies in the eyes of the people I photograph. It’s amazing to see how much they revere figures like Venkateswara, or Christ, or Allah. I’ve had such a close experience while photographing His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. God is a shell, a sense of security, that we’ve created for ourselves. Who am I to question it?
What is your advice for those shooting religious processions for the first time?
Walk into these situations with care and sensitivity, so that you don’t overstep into other peoples’ spaces. Secondly, don’t inflict your understanding of faith onto the situation. Try to capture the truth as it is revealed to you.
Photographs from Shri Venkateswara of Tirupati (Westland Books; ₹3,999) by Raghu Rai, with text by Lekshmy Rajeev