A continent's essence slips by

River of Colour

January 1, 1999

Raghubir Singh is one of India's leading photographers. His photographs are in the permanent collection of museums and galleries such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, the National Museum of Photography in Bradford, and he has held many solo exhibitions, especially in the United States and India. Since 1974, he has published 12 books on India, including Rajasthan , about his home state, which has a foreword by Satyajit Ray. River of Colour is the first retrospective of his work and ties in with a travelling exhibition; it carries a preface by the curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, 128 colour photographs with end-captions by Singh and an opening essay by him, all displayed in an unusually large (and somewhat unwieldy) landscape format.

As someone with a strong interest in Indian visual arts who has followed Singh's career, I coveted this book-until I got hold of a copy.

To begin with, the jacket - surely the photographer's own choice - consists of 11 uniform, machined, vertical stripes of colour, starting on the left with ochre and ending on the right in dark brown, topped with a horizontal black stripe containing the photographer's name and the book's title. That's all. It looks very similar to a house painter's colour chart or a television test card-and is absolutely bereft of a river's connotations. Not only does it fail to suggest that this is a book of photographs, it is utterly inappropriate to the expressive exuberance of Indian forms and colours. The jacket is truly a disaster.

The book is divided into sections, each of which is prefaced by literary quotations, mainly from Indian books, of varying quality and relevance. The title of a section is pulled out from the quote in large capitals with a box around them, an irritating gimmick which distracts the eye from the photograph on the opposite page.

One non-Indian source is Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment : "Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes." This stands in ironic contradiction of Singh's need for lengthy commentaries to explain his images. Cartier-Bresson - described in the preface as Singh's "hero" - does not need filler words to accompany his photographs. Although at various places in the book, including on the back jacket, Singh and his publishers imply that these photographs may be compared with Cartier-Bresson's photographs of India, the idea is false. When I met Cartier-Bresson a year ago and happened to mention Singh's work, Cartier-Bresson instantly, in his inimitable way, enacted the folded hands of the bowing maharaja icon of Air India and muttered about "exotification". I was left in no shadow of doubt that he was not an admirer of Singh's photographs.

The opening essay, "River of colour: an Indian view", drops a lot of other names too, as it rambles over Indian art and culture, colonialism, black and white versus colour photography and Singh's life. He proposes that, "The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt - from which black is inseparable. The fundamental condition of India, however, is the cycle of rebirth, in which colour is not just an essential element but also a deep inner source, reaching into the subcontinent's long and rich past." So was Cartier-Bresson wrong to work in India in only black and white? And what about Ray's classic films?

Singh effuses admiration for Bengal, my home state, for its independent-mindedness and respect for art-but he shows shallow knowledge of it. For instance, he misspells the name of the painter Abanindranath Tagore as Abindranath-a mistake normally made only by foreigners; he fails to mention the key fact that a statue of the goddess Kali is extensively worshipped after being painted before it is immersed in the Ganges; and he captions his portrait of Satyajit Ray as "a member of the Brahmo sect" who is holding his "katha", his famous red note book containing his film scenarios. This last is a serious mistake-a bit like describing Woody Allen as an orthodox Jew - and katha in Bengali means story; the word for notebook is khata .

All the stranger then that the book is dedicated to Ray "who showed us how to bridge (two worlds) without the loss of one's identity". It is transparent from Singh's essay that he sees his art also as building a bridge between India and the West and is concerned not to lose his identity. But Ray, unlike Singh, never felt any anxiety about losing his identity. He never felt the need to justify his openness to the West. On the contrary, he stated that he felt intellectually and artistically stimulated by his wide exposure to western thought, art, literature and music, because he was secure in his knowledge of Indian art, literature and music. That is why neither Ray (nor Cartier-Bresson from the opposite direction), exoticise India.

Quoting the celebrated little poem that Tagore wrote in Bengali in the child Ray's autograph book, Singh says that he aims to capture India reflected "in a dewdrop". In fact, he gets carried away on the teeming sea of humans, animals and vehicles so typical of Indian life. In the process he catches few memorable glimpses of that "river of colour" comparable to the refined postures of a Bharat Natyam dancer or a hunting scene in a Rajput miniature painting that he so admires. Even his portraits of individuals, such as Ray, R. K. Narayan and V. S. Naipaul, seem awkward and lacking in personality.

There are, of course, some really memorable images, perhaps 20 in all-such as my favourite, showing bullocks for sale at the Pushkar Fair in Rajasthan-and they include several taken in Calcutta. But it is noteworthy that the majority of these belong to the 1960s and 1970s, and were taken in Rajasthan. This surely reflects the fact that Singh was more sympathetic to and knowledgeable about his subject matter in the first half of his career - before, that is, he started looking for images that would impress an audience of western photographers. These few excellent images deserve to be remembered and preserved in international collections. Best, I think, to set aside River of Colour and instead pick up Rajasthan: India's Enchanted Land , a book that I shall always cherish.

Krishna Dutta is a scholar and writer specialising in Indian, especially Bengali, culture.

River of Colour: The India of Raghubir Singh

Author - Raghubir Singh
ISBN - 0 714 83806 3
Publisher - Phaidon
Price - 35.00
Pages - 1599

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