With his hip cocked at a jaunty angle, finger pressed to his lip, the titular subject of Raghubir Singh’s photograph, A Young Assistant of a Betel Leaf Seller, Benares, Uttar Pradesh (pre-1987) stares directly into the camera, defiant to its transfixing gaze. Propped behind him is a mirror, through which his employer is reflected, caught standing just outside the camera’s range. This mirror serves as both the punctum of the photograph and a metaphor for Singh’s singular ability to capture the fragmented nature of post-partition India in all of its complexity – what he referred to as ‘the Ganges side of modernism’.
In ‘Modernism on the Ganges’, Singh’s exhibition at the Met Breuer, his colourful Kodachromes spanning from the late 1960s to the 1990s are positioned as somewhat of a corrective to the dominance of Western photographers in the modernist canon. His pictures of street scenes, pilgrim camps and religious festivals are fleshed out with colonial-era photographs and Rajput miniature paintings, as well as photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and a film by Satyajit Ray, both of whom Singh deeply admired; their influence can be readily seen in his photographs, all of which attempt to emulate the frisson of life’s fleeting moments.
Singh’s use of colour, however, veered sharply from his mentors’. Colour, for Singh, was a distinctive feature of Indian sensibility, contrasting with Western photographers’ preference for black and white film, which he viewed as indicative of ‘a cultural sensibility pervaded by angst and alienation’. Indeed, Singh’s unique vision can be described as prismatic, in the ways his sensitivity to colour exposes the messy interstices of modern life. Consider the image of Holi Revellers, Bombay, Maharashtra (1990), where the subjects, all men, are captivated by the frenzy of celebration. Eyes wide, mouths agape and covered in dye, neither of the two men in the middle of the frame look directly at the camera; their white shirts accent and enhance the pigment that cascades across their faces. To their far left, almost out of frame, is another man, hand stained pink, face dyed blue-black in a fantastical evocation of a Hindu deity. The effect of these contrasts is at once recognizably and singularly Indian, yet universally registered as a moment of excitement and joy. As David Batchelor argues in Chromophobia (2010), Western culture relies on an animosity toward colour to characterize the Other as foreign and transgressive. In Singh’s depictions of Holi celebrations, this excessiveness is tempered, refracted and modified to produce a dynamism that extends beyond the frame.
His photographs, as evidenced by this exhibition, are charged by a distinct global cosmopolitanism – one that sits comfortably alongside the historical images that serve as source material, as well as etchings by Anish Kapoor (Untitled, 1996) that gesture toward Singh’s lasting influence. Singh focused his lens equally on India’s steadfast traditions and the effects of its rapid urbanization. For example, in Below the Howrah Bridge a Marwari Bride and Groom after Rites by the Ganges, Calcutta (1968), the rugged steel Howrah bridge, constructed just before India’s independence, is juxtaposed against a colourful, ritual marriage procession. Such clashes underscore the country’s fitful reconciliation of its cultural identity with the impacts of modern industry.
There is a sense of strained effort, at once admirable and unsettling, in the Met Breuer showing Singh’s work alongside that of his white, Western friends and contemporaries, which seems almost to justify his presence – acknowledging the canon’s shortcomings while simultaneously furthering its influence. The exhibition was dogged by protests, after artist Jaishri Abichandani accused Singh of sexually abusing her in the 1990s. If true, his actions are reprehensible; but his virtuosic body of work still merits the Met Breuer’s overdue dive. Singh’s vibrant photographs, with their shifting and often stultifying portrayals of India, offer multiple ways of seeing a world in flux.
Main image: Rughubir Singh, Man Diving, Ganges Floods, Benares, Uttar Pradesh, 1985, c-type print, 32 × 47 cm. Courtesy: © Succession Raghubir Singh