Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh at the Met Breuer

Raghubir Singh’s photography, the subject of the Met Breuer’s exceptional Modernism on the Ganges, is so full of life and so striking in its collocation of modernity and the past that I was almost grateful I’d arrived late to the press screening and missed most of the tour. After the other critics filed out, I asked the custodian to let me stay a little while longer, and found myself taking a few quiet minutes before each picture, expertly gathered and composed by curator Mia Fineman. It is a shame that the show opened to such little fanfare. Singh’s oeuvre is unfamiliar in its beauty. His work forces one to reconsider the trajectory of post-war photography in its modern, international idiom.

Singh’s work sits between a deep engagement with Indian history and aesthetics and an international modernism. He explores not only places (Mumbai, Calcutta, Rajasthan), but also, as V.S. Naipaul put it, the “civilization” of India: the Ambassador car, market stalls, the great permutations of festival colors and sounds (Singh’s photographs aren’t silent unless he wants them to be), and the Ganges River. Most of Singh’s work is neither photojournalism nor art photography, but rather a hybrid approaching the psycho-geographical.

As Devika Singh, the artist’s daughter, recounts in the forward to the show’s catalogue, photography was not a recognized art form in India during most of the Singh’s lifetime — he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1999, at age 55. Rather than lead him away from photography or India, this rather anarchic environment redoubled his conviction that his home needed to be captured in a particular way: without prurience, with skepticism, and on its own terms. Maybe most importantly, this meant it needed to be captured in color.

Born in 1942, to an aristocratic, devoutly Hindu family in Jaipur, Singh came into the world on the crest of massive social reconfiguration. Land reform in newly independent India, lead by the National Congress, meant that the old feudal estates could no longer sustain themselves. Living through the end of the Zamindar helped Singh understand both the rapidity of change and the durability of tradition (and more often than not, their uneasy coexistence in the mores of the ascendant middle class). His parents gave him a camera at age 14, about the same time that he discovered Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Beautiful Jaipur (1948) cosseted in his family’s library (a coincidence: Cartier-Bresson got his first “brownie box” camera at the same age). Finding Cartier-Bresson was formative for Singh, though not terribly unusual: Cartier-Bresson impressed itself upon not only a generation of Indian photographers, but also upon the country’s very image of itself. His vision of great national events such as Gandhi’s funeral and the violence that followed partition were, for better or for worse, so ubiquitous that they often stood in for the events themselves.

Unable to find a traditional job after dropping out of college, Singh took up photography and dove into the hectic intellectual scene of 1960s Calcutta. There, he befriended the polymathic R.J. Gupta and Satyajit Ray, the doyen of Bengali cinema, who would later contribute forewords and graphics for a number of Singh’s books. A few years later, in 1966, Singh met his great influence, Cartier-Bresson, for the first time during a dinner party hosted by the photographer Marilyn Silverstone at the Rambaugh Palace Hotel. Singh was overjoyed to find himself not only meeting but spending the week with the Frenchman, trailing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi around Jaipur.

Unlike Cartier-Bresson, Singh never flitted towards the redoubtable hills of painting and film. Cartier-Bresson was not fully comfortable with his camera until after the war. In the 1920s and ‘30s he dabbled at being a painter (Gertrude Stein told him not to quit his day job as a sinecure at his family’s prosperous textile business), a surrealist with Louis Aragon, an assistant to Jean Renoir on Toni (1935), and much more. Yet unlike Cartier-Bresson, who loudly proclaimed his affinity for painting and cinema and downplayed the influence of photography, Singh was equally polymathic but unashamedly a photographer. Yet, his work carried the marks of everything from the aesthetics of 18th century Rajasthani miniatures to the fractured space and vibrant cubes of De Stijl.

Singh’s life was that of a semi-nomad: months in Paris, New York, and London alternated with long stays on assignment in India. Hired by National Geographic and other mainstays of post-war photojournalism, his magazine work was accomplished but often standard in its focus on narrative photography: political figures, poverty, and grandiose decay. Which is to say, it was more or less humanitarian documentary. After all, readers had certain expectations about the Third World that needed to be fulfilled. Instead of depicting the rising middle class, glossy magazines presented numinous poverty; instead of engaging with the confessional tensions and contradictions of secularization, an impenetrable religiosity was the sole offering.

But Singh kept his finest work to himself, leading to over a dozen book-length projects.

In many of his best pictures, the images push out against the edges of the frame. They are wonderfully stuffed: shirtsleeves, muddy feet, mirrors (often reflecting Singh, aiming his own reflective device at the mirror), the triumphant statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, cars, chickens, hastily painted blue trams, and artists in clubs left over from the days of the Raj. Yet Singh was a meticulous framer. Often, as with his picture of the Bose statue, the subject is framed by its surroundings, in this case the backdoor of a windowless pine green truck door, a reminder that however complete an image may be, its sense of completeness rests on what is excluded.

In River of Color, his most comprehensive book featuring work from all over the subcontinent, Singh recounts that in “the 16th century court of Akhbar, it was an enormous surprise when Jesuits presented the emperor with the royal polyglot bible with engravings.” He insists that the courtiers would have, “after recovering from this shock, filled the stark and dense engravings with color.” He follows this with the provocative claim that “Before colonialism and before photography, Indian Artists didn’t see in black and white.” Singh believe that India had a congenital allergy to black and white — the influence of a chiaroscuro tradition, from the renaissance onwards, is nearly wholly absent in his work.

Whether or not his theory about “black and white” is, strictly speaking, true (Buddhist sculpture and Ray’s films might hint at a more complex reality), it does help us understand the mode in which Singh captures some of his great subjects: great bands of weather and atmosphere, cloistral social life, and the private moments of artists and intellectuals. In this he is not unlike the Golden Age Dutch painter Aelbert Cuyp, who in deftly parsing the cooked and the raw, didn’t so much delineate the border between civilization and nature as delicately wash the line away.

In Benares after a flood, Singh found some boys diving into the river with Olympian elegance. The landscape, which draws your attention more intently than even the subjects, moves from an oxidized blue to a creamy yellow. While seeming almost to be one of Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments,” Singh’s composition is something else entirely. It plays with our desire for easy categorization: are we looking at the intrusion of humankind onto nature, nature onto humankind? The answer remains unclear.

Moreover, Singh’s fidelity to color allowed him to avoid some of the sharp coldness and alienation that characterized the work of his American forebears and friends, such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Lee Freidlander. He felt it inappropriate to maintain such an ironic distance from the world. His style also permitted an escape from Cartier-Bresson’s near-debilitating mania for pattern and order. Perhaps Singh’s truest American antecedent was William Gedney, whose intensely human focus on both Indian and American subjects, provided something of a visual language amenable to Singh’s aims.

As with Gedney, each detail in Singh’s work demands our attention and repays our interest. His power is on particular display in one of his later pictures, The Stone Carvers, Jaipur, Rajasthan (1998). A tender elaboration on Courbet’s The Stonebreakers, it depicts a stall of artisans in oatmeal colored shirts (the same color as Courbet’s subjects). To the far right, a child stares, mouth agape, out of a white window. In the foreground, a man’s half smile is framed in the reflection of a black hand-mirror, itself a near reflection of a different man, his mouth caught somewhere between surprise and joy.

Image: Raghubir Singh, Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal, 1991, Collection of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Photograph copyright © 2017 Succession Raghubir Singh.
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