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,” Singh wrote in his 1998 book River of Colour: The India of Raghubir Singh. He was talking of the India of the 1960s, when most photographers travelling to the country took back images in black and white, and where it was hard to access equipment for colour photography. Working with the National Geographic magazine then, Singh got an “unlimited” supply of Kodachrome slide film. He was free to pursue independent projects, and among the earliest was the documentation of sites and places along river Ganga, from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Some of these photographs comprise the exhibition “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs” that is on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Featuring over 80 photographs by Singh, the exhibition spans his entire career and includes his unpublished projects from the 1990s. “Using a handheld camera and colour slide film, he recorded India’s dense milieu in complex frieze-like compositions, teeming with incident, fractured by the reflections, and pulsating with opulent colour,” writes Mina Fineman, associate curator in the Department of Photograph at the Met, in the introductory text. She juxtaposes his photographs with his contemporaries, including Anish Kapoor and Ketaki Sheth, and Indian court paintings that influenced him.
Born into a family of Rajput aristocrats in Rajasthan in 1942, Singh set up home in London, Paris, New York and Hong Kong but India remained his muse, as he continued to photograph its urban and rural vistas. From the late ’60s, the exhibition has his photographs on the cover of numerous international magazines, including New York Times and Life, and also the iconic 1967 photograph Monsoon Rains, from Monghyr in Bihar, with four women hurdled together on the banks of the Ganges. “Singh considered this image to be his first successful photograph… Rooted in communal life and the cyclical time of the yearly monsoon, the image announces Singh’s lifelong preoccupation with ‘the geographical culture of India’ and the deep intertwining of land, climate and tradition,” writes Fineman. She compares the setting of a 1975 photograph, Catching the Breeze, with a Rajput miniature painting (1750-75). Having developed an interest in court painting in the 1960s, after being invited by the director of the City Palace Museum in Jaipur to photograph the collection of Rajput miniatures, Fineman notes, “the influence of court painting on Singh’s photography can be seen in his use of multiple focal points within a single picture, his simultaneous attention to myriad details, and his epicurean embrace of colour”.
“He was that rare photographer who became deeply interested in art history and sought to educate himself in both Western and Asian art, and the history of photography. He could argue as easily about the merits and style of the Mughal painters Mansur and Basawan as about those of the 19th century photographers in India, Linnaes Tripe and Felice Beato,” notes friend and photographer Ram Rahman, adding, “Raghubir’s was the striving of so much contemporary creative work in India — taking the lessons of modernism and internalising them to create a truly contemporary artistic truth.”
The display is testament. If a 1968 photograph has a Marwari bride and groom below the Howrah Bridge, there are bullocks for sale in a 1974 photograph from the Pushkar fair. Publications came early in his career — Ganga: Sacred River of India (1974) and Calcutta (1975). Interested as much in the socio-political developments as well as life in diverse settings, his protagonists in the display include wrestlers in Benaras, a slum dweller in Dharavi, tribesman on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border, and a man changing truck tyres at a petrol pump in Trivandrum. There are also photographs of his most significant independent project outside India, in Northern England, where he began shooting in the mid 1980s.
Different terrains and its people fascinated him. After travelling across his home state Rajasthan in the late ’70s, Singh largely turned his focus to Kolkata, Benaras and The Grand Trunk Road in the ’80s, and the commercial capital of Mumbai in the ’90s. He famously filmed the ambassador car, that dominated the Indian roads for decades, even leading to a book A Way into India, that was published posthumously (2002), after his death at the age of 56 in 1999. In the exhibition, we see photographs depicting his numerous engagements. There is also Singh himself, in Delhi, with a camera hanging down his neck, in a 1982 photograph by Rahman.