Photojournalist Raghu Rai’s camera trailed Mother Teresa for five decades. In his pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, you get to see the iconic images of the lady who was mother to all
The diminutive figure draped in a white saree with a blue border was a personification of compassion and love. She continues to be so even after her death. In his pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta — A Celebration of Her Life & Legacy, (brought out by Aleph Book Company) photojournalist Raghu Rai captures the story of Mother Teresa and the work of Missionaries of Charity.
Rai’s camera was a witness to the daily and eventful happenings in the life of Mother and did its job faithfully, adhering to instructions of Mother — to respect the dignity of the poorest of the poor.
Divided into three sections — The Canonization of Mother Teresa, Her Life and Work and Her Legacy, the book also has an appendix with a chronology of events in Mother’s life.
The book, which is scattered with quotes of Mother, doesn’t have captions. Says Rai, “The book doesn’t give individual captions to the pictures because they are fairly self-explanatory. I also feel a successful picture doesn’t need any crutches, any words to explain itself.”
Excerpts from the conversation:
It was in 1970s that you first met Mother Teresa. Can you remember the moment?
In 1970, one of my editors at Statesman, Desmond Doig — a very prolific writer, designer, artist — rang me up in Delhi saying, “Raghu, I have met a great lady. And you have to come and photograph her.” I had a lot of respect for Desmond, his understanding, so I went to Calcutta and I met Mother Teresa in 1970.
The best part is that the Mother I met in 1970 and the Mother who left us in 1997 was the same ordinary, compassionate, loving mother. She never flickered as a human being. For me, her spiritual powers never dimmed.
How did you establish a connection with her? For someone who was so involved with her mission, did she find your camera intrusive?
Yes, she found my camera intrusive. Always. That was the only problem I had with her. After I had taken a few pictures, she would look at me and say, ‘Oh, I think you have taken enough pictures.’ How could I tell her that they were not enough?
When I turned up after a few months to take more photos, she would say, ‘You have come again. But we are in prayer’. So then I told her, ‘Mother, you have your way of praying. My way of praying is when I take pictures and capture the magic.’ She replied, ‘Oh dear, it’s nice. Do your work’.
You formed a lifelong association with her. Did that lead to exchange of confidences?
Mother was an open book and she did what she thought was necessary for the most ordinary, poorest of poor. But sometimes, she would wonder, ‘Oh my God! There is so much to do and I don’t have so much strength and resources to serve Him’. We never discussed personal lives.
What were your impressions of Calcutta as seen by the Mother?
In the book, there are several pages devoted to life in Calcutta — images of people sleeping in the open; one topless woman sitting in the middle of a street. The poverty was visible on footpath, on streets. These scenes disturbed her and inspired her to do what she did. Calcutta was the place which ignited her compassion and to do seva of the poorest of the poor. Toh yeh saari batein mein Mother ke saath jiya hua hun.
Abroad, people think of India as a land that has ailing and malnourished people, especially from the photographs that are showcased there. In your book, have you portrayed the ailing and suffering in a different light?
You know, people come with different sets of ideas and you can’t really challenge the understanding that they have of India. One thing which Mother told me in the beginning was: ‘Please remember one thing Raghu Rai, when you take pictures, the dignity and respect of the poorest of the poor has to be reflected in them. Unless you portray the sensitivity and care that we are giving them, in the images, you can’t shoot pictures when they are lying naked, filthy and painful’.
Have you gone back to Missionaries of Charity and seen the present-day work?
Before Mother was canonised, I was in Calcutta and I spent time visiting her Homes all over the city again. I was surprised to find that they were run more efficiently. Also, the presence of Mother was everywhere; in the sense that some portrait of Mother is looking down at you from the wall; there is her statue or bust. There were also some pictures that I had clicked.
I went to Old People’s Home in Kalighat and there was Mother. I went to Children’s Home — Shishu Bhavan and I see a statue of Mother, looking down at the babies. Then I went to Prem Dan where the leprosy patients are hosted. Her statue was there. I have photographed her Homes, showing her presence everywhere.
How many photographs went into the book? What sort of archival methods did you employ?
The book is about 150 pages and it has 130 photographs or so. I am not a very good archival person, but luckily, some of the important negatives were kept away, in safe place. So thanks to digital technology, we scanned and touched them, and they were then ready to print.
Did the newsworthy images go into the book?
No, it’s not really news images or journalistic images. But more humane photographs, that bring out the suffering of the ordinary people and the concern of the Mother and Missionaries of Charity for them.
When you heard about her demise, what thoughts crowded your mind?
When she passed away, in September 1997, it was pouring that day and the next day as well. But thousands of people stood in the queue to have her last darshan. Because she was Mother to all. Some people might say she was Christian and bringing more people into her faith, but the love and care she gave and the way she touched the hearts of everybody, it was quite touching to watch.