Raghubir Singh's Modernism in Colour
Singh’s subjects were crucial to the pictures, not merely as an excuse for the aesthetic exploration of hues and intensities – but they formed the pulse and the flavour of the river of colour that is India, writes Uma Nair.
Raghubir Singh (1942–1999) a pioneer of colour street photography who worked and published prolifically from the late 1960s until his death in 1999 at age 56.
At the Metmuseum in New York Singh's retrospective exhibition situates Singh's photographic work at the intersection of Western modernism and traditional South Asian modes of picturing the world. 85 photographs by Singh define his scope and depth in his exploration of colour.
Photographer, designer and curator Ram Rahman who was a close friend shares insights into Singh's works as this magnum opus opens in New York.
"Raghubir was the first photographer to consider colour seriously as his expressive medium as a photographer. He believed it was intrinsic to our cultural ethos and could not be dismissed," states Rahman.
Singh had cited Edgar Degas and the American photographer Helen Levitt as influences, and you can see what he has learned from their highly sophisticated approaches (Degas's casual grace, Levitt's sympathetic view of urban oddity and the way both of them let in messiness at the edges of their images – a messiness that reminds us of the life happening outside the frame as well as within it).
"Raghubir was self-taught," explains Rahman," as were most other photographers. His distinction was that he was also self taught in art and cultural history – an area alien to most photographers. Also, he immersed himself deeply in the world history of photography and very consciously placed his practice within that history – striving to break barriers and be known for innovation on the world stage."
Singh's pictures do not scream at you.They are surreal in a subtle sense, natural and powerfully capacious in terms of content. His Man Diving, Ganges Floods, Benares, Uttar Pradesh, 1985 is a striking composition, that rises well beyond mere competence, as he demonstrates the beauty and ethos of Benares as a mascot of river of colour and conversations in time.
Rahman presents a greater depth into Singh's oeuvre. " He was not a photographer who made single images – he saw his body of work as a continuing exploration in both formal and conceptual terms of his vision of India in a geographical sense. His 'journey' books...The Ganga, The Grand Trunk Road and the individual books on regions of India or cities, were all part of an ongoing visual narrative of his vision of our civilisation. That is the lesson he leaves."
Singh's Bengal studies unravel like classics born out of chaos. Barber and Goddess Kali, Calcutta, West Bengal, 1987 gives us a glimpse of his observant eye seeking out quotidian coherence with different unconscious counterpoints. His crowded intersection in Calcutta in Subhas Chandra Bose Statue, Calcutta, West Bengal, 1986 is a credo in the chaos of the everyday. The image, of which the key elements are a green door, Bose's statue in the distance, an arm and a bus, stand fora slightly surreal glimpse of the rooted reality of Calcutta. But look closer and you see how every element belongs its right place. It reads more like a moment of truth snipped from the flow of life. Singh's India he wrote, ''was the India in the dewdrop that Tagore talked of.'' He wrote that he had to dive into the dewdrop and learn of India's art, morality and culture while at the same time diving into the history of photography, "which is wholly Western.''
Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal, 1991 is the piece de resistance of the Bengal classics. This work is a cornucopia of details that dance in the windows of colour-it is more challenging than the majority of color photographs we encounter in our day to day dealings. At once the inanimate and the animate come together to give us a work that is like a signature in ethnographic culture.
Cultural connotations of colour
Singh has himself explained in the past the development of his art outlines, how colour is natural to larger beliefs that have pervaded the cultural and spiritual life of India since antiquity.
Rahman gives us a critical assessment and says: "He worked in colour when many serious photographers dismissed it as to easy and seductive. He worked to avoid the traps of sentimentality which colour was prone too, and used it to make pictures which were complex and filled with multiple meanings in which colour did not reduce the meaning but enhanced the poetry of those complexities."
I love even more the photographs Singh took in Mumbai . His Kemps Corner, photograph has less-obvious charms.His Victoria Terminus and Zaveri Bazar are poignant studies that speak about the division of axis and vertical scatterings that face us in busy areas in Mumbai. Perhaps the mosquito net carried between the hustle and bustle of Victoria Terminus is a singular structure that embraces the horizontal plane of the picture.
Then his epic Ganpati Immersion Chowpatty Mumbai 1989 is virtually an open, potential space for the ritual powers that gather people and the monumental Ganhesha captured amidst nimbus clouds and the splash of water droplets. While your is drawn towards the potent and classically balanced composition of Ganpati you wonder if Singh was wanting to gather the synergy between spiritual and cultural iotas for something exciting and deeply grounded.
Moreover, colour for Singh was not something he captured to draw attention to itself. At the Metmuseum we realise that Singh's subjects were crucial to the pictures, not merely as an excuse for the aesthetic exploration of hues and intensities – but they formed the pulse and the flavour of the river of colour that is India.
This suite also affirms the truth that the colour black does not fit into the idea of darshan. Indeed, the eyes of India see only in color.
The artist John Baldessari described Singh's photographic process thus, "There is his dualistic structuring. He blocks our vision of something we might want to see and then instead shows us something formerly unimportant, in other words he reverses hierarchies. He pits old against new. He makes gazes collide into a network of directional arrows—a constant ping-pong. He uses light in a way that appears holy. His employment of colour should make some painters envious and his shifts in space call to mind Velázquez." (A Way into India, Phaidon 2002).