In 1966, Raghubir Singh, then an aspiring photographer, travelled to Jaipur to meet his icon, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Still to discover his metier, the young lad whose interest in photography was sparked by Bresson’s little-known book, Beautiful Jaipur, sought lessons from the French master. After following him across Rajasthan for a week, Singh realised that that he shared Bresson’s love for small-format street photography, but not his fondness for black-and-white. For Singh, India could only be photographed in colour. “If photography had been an Indian invention, I believe that seeing in colour would never have posed the theoretical or artistic problems perceived by Western photographers,” he famously wrote in River of Colour: The India of Raghubir Singh in 1998.
Disappointed but not disheartened, Singh reluctantly began to tread on the path he wished to take — one that travelled from the ghats of the Ganges, that led to his first publication, Ganga (1974), to Paris, where he spent two decades. Later, he would move to New York, where he taught at Columbia University, Cooper Union and the School of Visual Arts until a few years before his demise in 1999 at the age of 56 of a heart attack. “The India that I set out to photograph was not the India reflected in the lenses of the British colonial photographers but the India in the dew drop that Tagore talked of, the dew drop that mirrors India’s geography: the mountain, the monsoon, the plain, the plateau and the wide web of rivers,” said Singh.
“Singh candidly acknowledged that he built his ‘chromatic eye’ using Indian traditions while also borrowing from the West; he was undaunted by the reactionary Indian nationalist attitudes of the immediate postcolonial period,” says Shanay Jhaveri, curator of the exhibition “Conversations in Colour: Raghubir Singh with Ram Rahman, Sooni Taraporevala, Ketaki Sheth”. A PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art, London, Jhaveri sifted through numerous photographs from his estate last year, to shortlist around 20 that comprise the exhibition. The show at Jhaveri Contemporary in Mumbai brings together Singh with younger photographers, each of whom was briefly associated with him. “Their images are not, strictly speaking, to be compared to Singh’s, but the exhibition provides a broad overview of the different approaches these three photographers employ when they use colour in their contemporary practice,” says Jhaveri.
India was seldom Singh’s home but never ceased being his subject. The exhibition features images from lesser-known bodies of work on Rajasthan and Kashmir alongside photographs from his dozen odd large-format books focussing on different parts of urban and rural India. There are also his iconic images of the Ambassador car, where the vehicle becomes a camera obscura — Singh used its doors and wind shield to frame and divide his photographs. Jhaveri points out that Singh, perhaps, was one of the first Indian photographers to picture conditions of class, and venture into the homes of the Indian elite and middle class. “He subtlely captured the transformed and transforming landscape of post-Independence India and its social fabric,” says Jhaveri. The display at the gallery bears proof: a 1968 photograph has a Marwari bride and groom with their entourage on the banks of the Ganges below the Howrah bridge; in a 1982 print, Singh steps inside the opulent Morvi Palace in Gujarat to photograph the help.
Born into a family of Rajput aristocrats, Singh saw fortune turn against his family at the end of colonial rule. “My father’s Arab stallions were sold off; the horse carriages began to rot. Our joint family broke up, our large haveli-house became fragmented. I saw no future in staying on,” he wrote in River of Colour. He remained a wanderer, in his work and life. After walking out impulsively from his graduation exam at Hindu College, Delhi, he followed his elder brother to Kolkata to work in a tea estate. When that did not materialise, he found his calling in art. Months were spent photographing street scenes and discovering Kolkata, a city where modernist ideas happily co-existed with vernacular Indian art. He interacted with various practitioners of the Bengal school, and also filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who later designed the cover of Ganga and wrote the introduction to his Rajasthan book.
By the mid-’60s he had created an impression as a photojournalist but the big break came a few years later, when Life magazine published eight pages of his photographs of student unrest in India. The self-confessed semi-nomad soon moved to Hong Kong, followed by assignments from leading international magazines. He left his footprints behind — boxes of books and photographs at friends’ houses, the world over. There were prestigious exhibitions too, venues varying from the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. “The manner in which he taught himself the history of the medium was commendable, he was obsessed with photography,” says Ram Rahman, who first met Singh in 1981 in New York.
Not just its colours, Rahman points out that Indian miniatures too defined Singh’s photographs. “He had an opinion of the cultural geography of India and the photographs he took were linked to that larger vision, with attention to every minute detail,” says Rahman, who considers Singh a pioneer of colour photography in the Indian subcontinent. In the international context, he would become one of the few photographers who dedicated themselves to the possibilities of colour at a time when black and white was still dominant.
Singh would go on to meet the French master again. In 1975, in Paris, Singh greeted him with his own publications, and Bresson, condescending of colour, just flipped through the pages.