In her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag describes photography as an act of non-intervention, ‘… moving through a panorama of disparate events’. This notion can be seen in the work of those who took to the streets with their cameras, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Gedney and Lee Friedlander, disavowing staged settings and hackneyed configurations in their efforts to depict everyday reality as they saw it. Sudden passing moments and odd juxtapositions of people and objects recorded in black and white characterised their representations of the pulse of places at different times in history—thereby introducing a distinct visual code about what was worth looking at.
Raghubir Singh’s posthumous survey exhibition, Modernism on the Ganges, shown almost two decades after his untimely death in 1999, included photographs that fall squarely within this realm—except Singh went one step further, using colour to bring the variety and vibrancy of India to his audience. By deliberately bucking against the dismissal of colour photography, which was deemed coarse and tasteless by the likes of Bresson, Gedney, and Friedlander, whom Singh considered as his mentors, Singh brought a completely different energy that he believed was vital to a reflection of life in his homeland. He elucidates this idea in his book River of Color, published in 1998, in which he wrote ‘The fundamental condition of India is the cycle of rebirth, in which color is not just an essential element, but also a deep inner source’.
In the early years, Singh’s images focused on villages and sacred sites from the Himalayas down to the Bay of Bengal. His photographs from the late 1960s until the mid-’70s appear to be flooded with commonplace images of religious figures and turbans, village belles, domestic animals and throngs of humanity. These stereotypical icons-—first embedded in the Western imagination in the 1960s, when India saw an influx of guru-seeking hippies—nevertheless became highly nuanced pictures in the hands of a visionary. Modernity had begun to spread like subtle ripples in a pond to the far corners of post-independence India, and its effects pervaded Singh’s photographs. A rubber flip flop abandoned in the corner of a village courtyard replete with handmade mud storage bins and clay pots, suggested the availability of mass produced objects, as did an image of five villagers seated on the gravel, sucking on orange popsicles while visiting a city in Rajasthan. Even so, these images of gradual transition from tradition, portrayed Singh’s palpable nostalgia for his home state. Like an ode to a bygone era, his soulful portraits of rural life appeared to exorcise the anxiety of loss.
In Curious Villagers Outside a Circus, Pushkar, (1976), also taken in Rajasthan, the innocence of the prying villagers enthralled by the arrival of a circus in their town was as poignant as it was telling about the looming inevitability of change. The brilliant colours and the formal aspects of the composition—featuring men dwarfed by an overhanging banner with fierce animals—not only illustrated how Singh brought Western modernism to India, but also revealed how he mimicked the jubilance of Indian miniature paintings which were a lifelong fascination for him. Most importantly, Singh brought the humanist practice of European street photography to his work. Images of a farmer lying on his bullock cart looking vacantly into the sky, or a man nestled idly on his ladder waiting out the monsoon floods, retained their emotional charge—suggesting that fate alone could determine these men’s futures.
Although Singh would spend more than the last two decades of his life living abroad, he returned frequently to India to photograph its increasingly brazen mishmash of cultures and aesthetics. He developed an uncanny knack for detecting precise moments, and his connection to his native country remained evident throughout his life. Photographs from the late ’80s and ’90s portrayed the deeper schisms that were beginning to become apparent, especially in the major cities of India crammed with action and people. An invisible flâneur, Singh roamed through urban jungles and presented frames brimful of paradoxes coexisting side-by-side. Poles and tree trunks divided the image into sections to showcase, for instance, a motorbike, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi protected by the serpent god, and a vendor seated on the ground under the shade of an umbrella, all within close proximity of each other. The conflicting tug of religion, history, poverty, and modernity that some historians have referred to as ‘awkward’, was unmistakable. In other pictures, mirrors, refletions,and multiple frames in the same photograph are enhanced by the use of a camera flash, which augments the scene as a confluence of multiple contradictions. Never straying from his vision to showcase the mundane, Singh’s myriad images were filled with passing encounters that together told a continuous tale of the transformation of India, defining a new way of seeing.
Raghubir Singh, Boy at Bus Stop, New Delhi, 1982. Photograph © 2017 Succession Raghubir Singh.
Raghubir Singh, Man Diving, Ganges Floods, Benares, Uttar Pradesh, 1985. Photograph © 2017 Succession Raghubir Singh.
Raghubir Singh, Slum Dweller, Dharavi, Bombay, Maharashtra, 1990. Photograph © 2017 Succession Raghubir Singh.
Raghubir Singh, Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal, 1991. Photograph © 2017 Succession Raghubir Singh.