Lekshmy Rajeev was a child of ten when she first heard the name Raghu Rai. Her father was telling her about the dream wedding he would hold for her – expensive clothes, an emerald necklace and Raghu Rai to photograph her. Lekshmy would hear about him again in later years, when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and he clicked pictures of the grieving family, when the Bhopal gas tragedy happened and his photo of the nearly buried child’s face became iconic.
Raghu Rai didn’t make it to Lekshmy’s wedding but years later he would travel in a car with her across Thiruvananthapuram, jumping out at busy junctions to click photos. She had by then become a writer. He clicked and she wrote. Paragraphs of history in between pages of beautiful photos. The coffee table book they created together for the Kerala Tourism Department came to be called Thiruvananthapuram: An Artist’s Impression.
“When I told him the story of how I first heard his name, he agreed to my request to visit the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple. The temple’s executive officer had planned a project for illustrious personalities to visit, and I was part of the selection team,” Lekshmy says.
This was in 2017. Lekshmy had then asked Raghu Rai to let her have photographs of the temple that he would not use. But when he came down, he wanted to do the Thiruvananthapuram book with her. She said no, she can’t afford that. “He joked then that I was rejecting him, not allowing him to work with me,” Lekshmy adds.
When Westland Books took up the publication for the Tourism department, Lekshmy accompanied Raghu Rai for his trips around the district, guiding him to places, introducing them. “At first he was not too psyched by the city,” she says.
It was at the time of the aarattu procession for the Painkuni Festival when idols were dipped in the sea that a wet Raghu Rai, struck by the evening waves, came running to Lekshmy. Excited like a child, he called Thiruvananthapuram a most beautiful city. Lekshmy must have heaved a long sigh that day.
Raghu Rai began clicking relentlessly, all day long.
“But he is not interested in taking photographs of celebrities or anyone famous. He is obsessed with the lives of ordinary people – a child on the street or the devotees of a temple, but not the deity,” Lekshmy says.
Flipping through the pages, you spot the magic in these photos – a girl with extraordinarily expressive eyes looking up from a book at the public library, another giving a smile to the camera as she reserves a place on the street with her mother for the annual Pongala festival, the face of a praying priest captured inside the hole of a window grill, daylight forming a halo around a woman devotee in a church.
Raghu Rai's photo of the public library, from the book
“He would sometimes jump out of the car and run through the street to take a photograph. Panicked, I would run after him!” Lekshmy says.
They’d have their squabbles, but every time Lekshmy accompanied him to the airport at the end of a visit – and there were many of these – he’d hug her and leave her in tears.
She tried to not let her emotions seep out into the book. The dad who dreamt of an emerald-rich wedding photographed by Raghu Rai is no more alive to watch the daughter gain such recognition. It was in 2016 that Lekshmy brought out her famous book Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions.
She did her research then. She did it now. Unfortunately, very little was left of what went on in ancient Thiruvananthapuram. The Padmanabha Swamy temple itself had suffered from two major fires. Entire histories were wiped out. But she’s happy she could do this bit for the city she grew up in. Not just the city too, the two have gone to the outskirts, to Sivagiri and Varkala. Seasides and museums. Foreigners of a pre-COVID time look merry in their beach costumes. Festival makers of all religions walk past the streets Raghu Rai had doubtless jumped out of cars for. There’s, however, no Onam picture, the two years they took to work on this book had been the ones with the worst floods in the state. It wasn’t a time to celebrate. But in every other way the Thiruvananthapuram story gets told in Rai’s magical pictures and Lekshmy’s crisp text.