Current Feature: Raghubir Singh
By Lev Feigin
Raghubir Singh, whose name in the world of photography is inseparable from India, was born to an aristocratic family in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Singh lived in Hong Kong and continuously returned to his native land – the inexhaustible muse of his 35 mm color photography – until his untimely death in 1999 at the age of 56. A pioneer colorist, Singh discovered the ecstasy of color during his countless journeys across the Indian subcontinent: on the banks of the Ganges – he travelled the river from its source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal – in the Kashmir mountains, in remote villages, in the bustle of city crowds. In Singh’s images, the rich, seductive hues of India, the vermillion of women’s saris, the saffron of sadhus’ robes, the ruby of turbans, mingle with the tawny browns of earth after a monsoon and the kaleidoscopic, eye popping colors of Westernization: omnibuses, plastic bags, television sets, posters, storefronts, cars.
Singh turned to photography after high school, having failed to find work as a tea planter in Calcutta. The city’s tea companies would not hire an upper-class young man whose family lost its fortune after India’s independence. Instead, Singh took his camera to Calcutta’s streets. Within a decade he would work for National Geographic. One of his early influences was Henri Cartier-Bresson whose pictures of India from the 40s were, according to Singh, some of the first “to show Indians as individuals” – in contrast to earlier British photographers whose work trafficked in Orientalist fantasies and colonialist clichés. Years later, when Singh met Cartier Bresson and showed him his own books, the Frenchman flipped through a few pages and set the books aside. For Cartier-Bresson, as for the era itself, the real turned art only in shades of gray.
What makes Singh’s images art – and thrusts them well beyond the borders of the best of travel photography – is their exhilarating plunge into the polyphonies of Indian life, their search for communion among its contrasts and contradictions, their capacious density where surprises await in every inch of the composition. An electric fan keeps six-handed deities cool in a museum; a man washes his bicycle in the city while behind him an elephant crosses a dusty bus terminal; a lorry lies toppled in a cow pasture as if a fallen Icarus. Surrealism undercuts the exotic.
The quotidian and the enchanting braid. What sets Singh apart from the canon of Western photography is a visual vernacular that seems to lack a syntax for alienation, for the estrangement of the figure against its historical ground. Lee Friedlander, upon his visit to India, would repeatedly ask Singh: “What would Atget have done here?” For Friedlander the modernist inflection, born on the boulevards of Baudelaire’s Paris, was no less valid on the streets of Calcutta. As Singh wrote in the introduction to his River of Colour, the American photographer looked for “the abject as subject.” To what then did Singh’s gaze turn instead?
To read the full article from our Issue Humanity, visit here