In the pages of Raghu Rai’s new photo book is an extraordinary life delicately encapsulated. A life of spirituality and divinity, of turmoil and struggle, of peace and strength — the life of the 14th Dalai Lama.
A God in Exile: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is a book over forty years in the making, and it shows. Through the volume runs not just the remarkable story of the ‘dethroned god-king’, but also that of a friendship cultivated over decades. A seamless and intimate body of work by one the most accomplished photographers the country has ever produced.
It was 1975 when Rai first met the Dalai Lama while working on an assignment for The Statesman. He recalls being struck by the openness and the warmth the spiritual leader showed towards him, “as though he were giving me the gift of equality”. As the years wore on and the world caught up with the goings-on in Tibet (with mounting aggression from China), assignments took Rai to His Holiness more regularly.
In time, he found himself capturing some of the most private and candid moments in the everyday life of the ever-accommodating Dalai Lama, and now, his new book chronicles this, thus proving to be a window into the life and character of a unique leader.
An effortless introduction by Jane Perkins, accompanied by archival photographs, recounts the history of the Dalai Lama lineage, the discovery and upbringing of the 14th incarnation, his childhood and early life, and his miraculous escape to India in 1959. The essay accomplishes the often notoriously difficult task of not overstaying its welcome and lends much gravity to the photographs that follow.
Talking about his photography, Rai, who was nominated to Magnum Photos in 1977 by Henri Cartier-Bresson, had once said that it became “my profession, my hobby, and in time, my dharma”. Turning through his luminous work in the book, one is immediately aware of his prowess. The photographer lays out the essence of his moments shared with the Dalai Lama with such heightened sensibilities and craftsmanship in his frames that with time, it seeps into one’s subconscious, resembling a personal memory.
Studying the photographs (not presented in a chronological order to give “an impression of a buildup of emotion in one ‘space’”) feels like spinning through a kaleidoscope of time and state. Be it his portraits from their first meeting or the delicate look at the Nobel Laureate’s quieter moments at his residence, or the magnificent and imposing photographs of his holy subject with the snow-capped Himalayas in the backdrop, the volume is a captivating, and occasionally a dreamlike affair.
Rai’s own words punctuate his photographs at regular intervals. Although a bit repetitive in content at times, these pages provide insightful anecdotes and details about his work, and a glimpse into the time and circumstances when a particular interaction took place. He does not shy away from admitting his great admiration for the Dalai Lama, and urges the readers to perhaps feel the ‘godly presence’ in the pages of the book too.
As for Rai’s subject, one could hardly wish for a more fascinating and dynamic presence. Animated and welcoming, the trustfulness with which the Dalai Lama embraces the photographer and his camera — at times to closed-door ceremonies and meditation sessions — translates to the page in form of a gracious invitation to know and understand him better.
There are moments of striking beauty, genuine tenderness, and surprising humour. And a spiritual and affectionate thread running through two lives, binding it all together.
Raghu Rai’s A God in Exile: The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is published in India by Roli Books
Updated Date: Sep 20, 2018 11:17 AM