Indian artist Raghubir Singh captures a subject among the chaos with his colour street photography.
Art Radar profiles the artist on the occasion of his major exhibition “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs”, on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The current exhibition “Modernism in the Ganges”, focusing on the life’s work of Jaipur-born photographer Raghubir Singh, is securing his role in the global photography canon. But is it modernist? Neorealist? Street-photography? Documentary? Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition curator, Mia Fineman, weaves threads through his portfolio, including the use of colour and the role of the handheld camera, to introduce the viewer to an innovative photographer who constantly defied attempts to place his work within a dominant trends.
Colour in a black and white world
Raghubir Singh’s defining feature is his use and experimentation with colour, something that set him apart from the black-and-white photographers he admired, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Gedney and Lee Friedlander. Singh is often reported as having said that there is a special relationship between colour and India, that only through colour could the Indian reality be captured.
Singh’s use of colour serves as a point of departure for the exhibition, with the curatorial text making a link between his repertoire and the miniature painting tradition of the Mughal period (1526–1857). Yet it quickly becomes clear that it is his dedication to capturing dynamic life across class boundaries that sets his documentary-style studies of the urban and rural environments apart from his modernist peers. Images like Monsoon Rains (1967) demonstrate the artist’s interest in using photography to pick out the dynamism and resilience across class disparities.
The Met exhibition highlights the role of the handheld camera and how this emerging technology allowed Singh to capture hidden, unexpected and unnoticed nuances at street level. While his work has been categorised as focusing on the “opulent colours of India”, images like Pavement Mirror Shop Howrah and Crawford Market, Bombay, suggest Singh’s real concern is with constructing a subject at the centre of urban chaos.
A subject among the chaos
Far from representing India as the “spiritual” and “colourful” place it is known as in the west, Singh’s practice centred around constructing a dynamic relationship with the subjects of his photographs. The resulting images actively challenge any gaze that seeks to exoticise or put distance between cameraman, viewer and subject.
Singh was born to a feudal upper-class family in Rajasthan who lost most of their land and fortune following India’s independence in 1947 from Britain. By the mid 1960s he had managed to secure work with a number of press firms and newspapers as a photojournalist, working with the National Geographic and The New York Times, among others.
Raghubir Singh’s portfolio of images, which document India between the 1960s and 1990s, is only gaining wide visibility now. Yet his work was uniquely innovative in India, breathing individuality and unfounded creativity to the neorealist style. Just as the influence of the photographer’s close colleague, Bengali film director Sayjitat Ray, on Western directors has been revealed (Steven Speilberg’s E.T. is reportedly a rip off of Ray’s innovative 1967 science-fiction flick The Alien), “Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs” makes the viewer wonder why they did not already know his name, and which other photographers throughout the twentieth century did.
“Modernism in the Ganges. Raghubir Singh Photographs” is on view from 11 October 2017 to 2 January 2018 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021.
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