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Out of Focus

What Raghubir Singh did not see

By RATIK ASOKAN | 1 February 2018

THE SCENE TAKES PLACE IN RAJASTHAN, sometime in the 1970s. A photographer passing through the desert comes upon a well. From a distance it appears romantic, the centre of rural life. But up close he finds the well nearly dry, which is a problem for the local peasants, who have no other source of water. They have other problems too, such as finding food. A drought seems to have ruined their annual crop. And their livestock, too expensive to feed, has been sent away. “I have eaten only a bit of gruel today,” a peasant tells the photographer.

Raghubir Singh recalls this episode in the introduction to his fourth photo-book Rajasthan, India’s Enchanted Land (1981). He offers the following by way of conclusion:

In Rajasthan, there are thousands of villages like Galawas, and hundreds of others which are worse off. My aim in writing about the villages is not simply to show its wretchedness. I find it futile to add to the volumes written on the poor in India. But it is important to point out that in spite of their poverty, the peasants of Rajasthan have spun out a wealth of folk culture. Their exuberance, their vitality, their ability to laugh, to sing and dance, interwoven into the rich fabric of their culture, makes them stand out … Even the clothes they wear, those bright and vivid fabrics, are a symbol of their colorful spirits.

This passage veers away from one kind of local colour, only to embrace another. The argument can be tracked in two movements. Singh first distances himself from a strand of concerned realism—the sort you might associate with the journalist P Sainath—because adding to it would be reductive and futile. His reasoning, one presumes (he does not articulate it), is that such writing reduces people to their abjection. Singh prefers that we celebrate their “vitality.” Peasants, he argues, “stand out” because of the “rich fabric of their culture” (and also because of their fabrics). This sounds nice enough until you reverse the equation. Would they not stand out if they did not sing and dance? And would Singh have lost interest if their clothes were plainer?

His early photographs suggest as much. Consider the peasants in Curious Villagers Outside a Circus, Pushkar (1976), who have their backs turned to us as they peep into a circus tent. This image has a social valence. Singh has registered their exclusion. More subtly, he conveys the imbalance of gender: the women crouch on their haunches, predictably beside the children, while the men and boys stand. But the overall structure emphasises something else.

The picture frame is neatly divided along the middle: the top half is covered by the tent’s burlap enclosure, which is in turn patterned with illustrations of animals; the bottom features the peasants distributed before a painted fence. The arrangement stresses certain visual resonances: first, that the peasants’ clothing matches the tent design; second, that some of their body language, particularly the crouching, is mimicked by the animals above. It could be argued that this is a visual trope, and a successful one at that. But what sort of success does it represent? Whose vision of “folk culture” is being reified? Can we imagine a white artist taking this picture at a Native American reservation? Would that not seem condescending? Then again, the peasants’ saris and kurtis (maybe even their white dhotis) are no doubt symbols of their “colorful spirits.”

THE QUESTION OF COLOUR, spiritual or otherwise, takes us far into “Modernism on the Ganges,” a grand and carefully curated retrospective of Singh’s photos that closed last month at New York’s Met Breuer (The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new location). This is first of all an art-historical matter. Singh, who began working in Jaipur in the mid-1960s, is today considered a pioneer of colour photography. This type of distinction, rare enough for an Indian artist, is doubly impressive when put in context. Singh had no mentors and almost no local audience (at least until the 1990s). He did not teach at universities until very late in his life. In short, his Western contemporaries had every advantage over him.

With tenacity worthy of his Rajput ancestors, he advanced his career from the mid-1970s on. First he made contacts in the art world as and when they passed through India. (It helped that he came from money.) Then he moved abroad, living with his French wife Anne de Henning in Paris, and later, rather nomadically, between New York, London and Delhi, usually with fellow artists.

His early projects were dictated by the taste of Western magazine editors; few in India would or could publish him. But within a decade, he won the freedom to work on his own terms. Success followed quickly. By the 1980s, he was displaying at respected galleries, even museums, and was admired by the world photo-community, particularly New York’s street photography circle. He shot manically through these years, with an eye toward making photo books, 13 of which he published before his sudden death, at the age of 56, in 1999. A fourteenth was released posthumously.

Singh died soon after a major exhibition of his, titled “River of Color,” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. His star has waned somewhat since, and the present show, the first on this scale in two decades, is angled as a sort of corrective. It has been largely successful in this regard; “Modernism” was rapturously reviewed in the US press.

There is also a sense that Singh is being canonised in India. The Indian novelists and art critics who wrote the catalogue essays for the exhibition are certainly in no doubt about his stature. Photographers, including his friend Ram Rahman and protégés Ketaki Seth and Sooni Taraporevala, paid homage at recent symposiums. The Reliance Foundation was kind enough to fund the show, which ran smoothly until the New York-based artist Jaishri Abichandani alleged, on the radio station WNYC, that Singh sexually abused her in the 1990s. The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, which she is a part of, staged a silent protest-performance outside the museum in early December. “I have a very simple goal,” Abichandani told the Huffington Post, “which is that when you Google Raghubir, this will come up.” (The MET supported Abichandani’s right to protest.)

WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be a pioneer of colour photography? Most saliently, it means to go against the grain. “When Singh began taking pictures in the mid-1960s,” the curator Mia Fineman writes in the catalogue, “black-and-white film was firmly established as the preferred idiom of art photography.” That judgment was upheld in several budding traditions. Consider “New Documents,” a legendary 1967 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The show brought together the work of three pioneering American photographers: Gary Winnogrand, who shot dynamic photos of street life; Lee Friedlander, whose work was more austerely self-reflexive; and Diane Arbus, who explored a form of gothic portraiture. All three shot in monochrome, as did most serious photojournalists. The medium held twin attractions: it was more direct and incontestable; yet the two-tone limitation allowed for expression.

Singh’s great achievement, or so the story goes, is that he resisted this dogma from day one. He instinctually shot his first photos in colour, and never switched, finding black and white too austere. The choice brought him much ridicule early on, especially from American colleagues. But over time they came to appreciate what he was doing. Today, colour is precisely what Singh is most lauded for, though the praise can often seem

Singh shot almost exclusively in India. Latching onto this, several critics have argued—and new critics continue to argue—that his subject matter merits a special format. Their essential claim is that colour suits India because… well, because India is colourful. For obvious reasons, this tends to be the foreign line. Thus the conceptual artist John Baldessari, whom Fineman quotes in the catalogue, has praised Singh for tackling India’s “visual bombardment and overload … the punctuation of color made vivid by its being surrounded by drabness.” Indians are not averse to the idea either, though their reasoning is usually more roundabout. “One singular quality of his photographs,” the art historian Partha Mitter argues in his catalogue essay, “is the balance of intensity and saturation in the range of colors that adds essential drama and texture to the bustling humanity in his images.” (Meaning that the “bustling humanity” must be brought to life with colour? Or just that colour compliments, as Mitter claims later, “the sheer picturesque quality” of India?)

The novelist Amit Chaudhuri takes the opposite stance in his catalogue essay. Colour, he argues, allowed Singh to a turn awayfrom subject matter and representation more broadly. His real subject was joy. Chaudhuri sees this as a characteristically Indian response. “Tragedy, calamity, conflict, loss—these constitute a story or theme,” he writes, whereas “Joy and its smaller secular cousin, happiness, are not, according to Western aesthetic parameters, subjects.” As an aesthetic argument, this does not hold water; much writing about childhood, a major theme in western literature, is about joy. But the flawed logic is of interest in that it reflects another prevailing idea: that Singh captured un-didactic “slices of life,” and that this turn away from narrative is innately praiseworthy.

It is telling that neither theory addresses the social valence of Singh’s project. That would entail dealing with class, both the representation of class, and the class-privilege innate in the turn away from representation.

Singh’s images suggest that he struggled to engage emotionally with his subjects (of course there are exceptions), who were ordinary Indians from a wide spectrum of class and caste backgrounds. This is perfectly understandable. As a semi-royal Rajput pursuing an elite art form, it would have been disingenuous for him to act like one of the gang (at the time, there were heavy import duties on cameras and film, and access to equipment was a rare privilege). The strange thing is that Singh never addressed this fundamental issue. Instead, with striking nonchalance, he depicted tableaus ranging from day-to-day street life to popular religious processions to extreme poverty, always finding something of visual interest, usually something to do with colour, incidental to the human drama at hand. As a result, his images have a sort of split personality. Their captions read like social tags—A Tribesman, Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh Border; Slum Dweller; Dharavi; Holi Revellers, Jodhpur—while the pictures are anything but individual or group portraits.

Consider Employees, Morvi Palace Gujarat (1982). Set, it seems, in the large living room of the palace, it depicts two servants, squatting on their haunches and scrubbing the floor. The picture is framed with an eye to pattern and historical irony. The gaudy and shiny modern cabinets contrast against elegantly patterned tiles, just as one servant’s sari is garishly modern and the other is somberly traditional. As in the Pushkar scene, Singh also deploys his favourite human-object trope. Four circles have been etched on to the glass doors of the cabinets in the middle of the room, a series which neatly continues onto one servant’s sari.

It can be said that this is a non-didactic “slice of life” that revels in the play of colour. Neither observation negates the simple and overwhelming fact that these women’s perspectives have been disregarded. Again, a simple comparison with the United States is instructive. Can we imagine a white artist taking such a photograph of black maids—and being lauded for it?

Pilgrims on Trichy Hill (1996), thankfully not included in the show, lays out the matter more starkly. The pleasing, blurred background of this image depicts rolling hills that speak to tourist fantasies. But blocking the view, lit by a harsh flash, is a family of barefoot pilgrims. This picture is less a portrait than an impasse. Singh has made little effort to tease out the pilgrims’ state of mind, or even put them at ease. Their features have been recorded, not observed. Police mug shots are more tender.

There are several similar images on display at the museum, and countless others in Singh’s photo books (those are usually more formally sophisticated). Together, they comprise a sort of mythopoetic version of India: a country of patterns and landscapes and colours and tropes, but very little human personality, or rather, with many humans whose personalities have been muted.

This muting is what critics variously interpret as a turn away from representation, or celebration of India’s colour. The matter is really more simple. Singh came of age at a difficult moment in Indian history. By the 1960s, the hopes sparked by Independence had given way to a sense of crisis, or rather a feeling that the country—with colonial levels of inequity, mired by corruption, and still largely casteist in its outlook—was drifting from crisis to crisis. VS Naipaul captured this period in India: A Wounded Civilization (1976).

In the book’s third section, which broadly focusses on culture, Naipaul diagnoses a peculiar neurosis among the country’s middle-class artists and intellectuals; they had grown obsessed with half-baked notions of Indian culture and antiquity. Naipaul correctly felt that this was a coping mechanism. As a cultural abstraction, India was marvellous and comforting, whereas the country’s social reality was overwhelming and wretched. By fixating on the country’s past, then, the artists and intellectuals could ignore the challenge of developing empathy for people outsidetheir class and caste.

Such cultural myths deform the artistic imagination. You cannot describe a society when you only see a tiny part of it. RK Narayan—who later wrote an admiring introduction to Singh’s photo book Tamil Nadu (1996)—is a good example. In a telling passage, Naipaul discusses reading Narayan’s comic novel Mr. Sampath before and during his visit to India. The book is about a journalist, who, failing to bring about change through his newspaper, rejects political engagement for a sort of enlightened pseudo-Hindu passiveness.

The story, charming when read in England, felt terribly escapist in local conditions. In India, Naipaul saw that the journalist’s inner retreat was not, or not only, silly, but a reflection of Narayan’s own temperament and belief. “But India will go on,” Narayan once told Naipaul, a phrase the latter returns to again and again in his book.

Narayan’s logic was that India eternally renews itself after defeats and destruction; in this cosmic scheme, the individual has a minor role to play and is, in fact, absolved of all responsibility. Singh, who belonged to a younger generation, did not entirely reject change. And in his later work, especially his books Calcutta: The Home and The Street (1988) and Bombay: Gateway of India (1994), he even acutely registers transformations: such as the rise of Dalit political organising and globalisation. However, he never managed to develop a genuine interest in individuals outside his social class. Up until his death, he imagined his countrymen as a backdrop for cultural ideas.

Sometimes they were equated with colour, as when he claimed, in an introduction to his photobook River of Color (1998), that “The fundamental condition of India is the cycle of rebirth, in which color is not just an essential element but also a deep inner source, reaching into the subcontinent’s long and rich past.” At other times, his thinking took on an animistic dimension. For example, in a 1989 essay, he wrote that his overarching ambition was to chart “the geographical culture of India: an environment in which people, animals, religion, tradition, myth, manners, history and climate are inseparable from one another and from the vast land of rivers, mountains, plains and plateaus.”

The governing logic of his oeuvre should be understood in this context. Singh charted India region by region. His champions argue that he created a “personal” vision of his country. But the diorama-like titles—Kashmir: Garden of the Himalayas, Kerala: The Spice Coast of India—are the surest giveaway.

If he were simply an orientalist, Singh would be of little interest. The thing is that he was, or at any rate became, an artist of remarkable skill. There are countless images that you can commend for the manipulation of perspective, latitudinal tension, gestural choreography or melodies of colour. But Singh’s overall vision remained retrograde. He continued to shoot offensive portraits and postcard tableaus and play silly games with colour, even as his technical abilities improved. That lopsided development is finally damning.

RAGHUBIR SINGH WAS BORN IN 1942 into a semi-aristocratic family in Jaipur. His father, a Thakur, inherited land around the city; his mother was a devout Hindu housewife. They lived in a large haveli, poring over their ancestry, enjoying feasts and festivals. It was a cloistered childhood, to say the least. “We began cycling to school when I was in my early teens,” Singh wrote, “There, for the first time, I came into contact with the outside worlds, and made friends with schoolmates of other communities.”

The family kept alive a rich sense of the past. Singh’s father, for example, claimed to own a knife that once belonged to Akbar. His mother, more ludicrously, traced their ancestors back to Rama. “The martial trappings,” he wrote, “the ceremonies, and the stories my father and mother told me provided us with a treasure around which we built our childhood games. In our fantasies we believed ourselves to be part of a fairy-tale world of fearless warriors on galloping horses and battling elephants.”

Agrarian land reform brought an end to their lavish lifestyle. Singh’s joint family broke up, lost much of its wealth, and he followed his brother to work as a tea-plantation manager in West Bengal. When his job applications were rejected, he switched to photography. Shooting in Calcutta, he immersed himself in the city’s bhadralok intellectual life. Satyajit Ray, who wrote the introduction to Rajasthan, and designed his early book covers, would be a lifelong friend.

Returning to Jaipur, Singh hustled as a freelancer. By the late 1960s, he had regular commissions from Life, The New York Times Magazine, and National Geographic (the last, his friend Ram Rahman has said, gave him an unlimited supply of Kodachrome slide film, then unavailable in India). These assignments—neatly framed shots of festivals, “tribals,” political rallies, and so forth—were simple enough. In his own work, he faced the harder challenge of finding a personal voice.

Initially, like most postcolonial artists, Singh worked after Western models, such as Cartier-Bresson (whom he met in Jaipur) and Eugene Atget. That said, the influence of National Geographic remained overriding. Singh’s early books on Calcutta (1974), the Ganga (1975), the Kumbh Mela (1980) and, one could argue, Rajasthan (1981), are largely filled with expository shots on familiar themes: decaying mansions in Calcutta, the Indian peasantry, religious processions, and political rallies. His sense of visual harmony, and talent for making unlikely contrasts work, are evident in some of the images, such as A Marwari Wedding Reception in South Calcutta’s Singhi Park (ca. 1972), with its screaming pink sofas that nicely sit against a green lawn (there is a rare touch of satire here too). But by and large, the work is unremarkable.

Two important things occurred during this period, or rather, two events were set in motion, though it took a while for their effects to be felt. First, Singh was commissioned by the great American art historian Stuart Carey Welch to shoot images of paintings in Jaipur’s royal archives. This was a profound experience, unsurprisingly, for a man with his feeling for the past. He fell in love with Rajput court painting. Indian art in general became a life-long passion; Singh later turned to it to explain his own theories about the pictorial depiction of social life.

If this discovery led him inwards and backward (not in the pejorative sense), the next would take him outwards and forward. In 1969, Singh met William Gedney, a Brooklyn-based photographer who was then in Benares on a Fulbright fellowship. The two became fast friends. Around this time, Singh began travelling abroad for work, and soon, through Gedney, he broke into New York’s modernist street-photography circle, then at the very forefront of the medium’s stylistic innovations.

Critics unanimously agree that these events changed Singh’s work, though their reasoning tends to be quite shallow. Rahman has made the case most eloquently. In a lecture delivered at the Delhi Photo Festival in 2013, Rahman contrasted Singh’s images from the 1970s with those from the late 1980s and 1990s, noting the startling change in the style of composition. The earlier photos are expository and neatly laid out, conceived above all to convey information and depict a scene. But Singh’s encounter with American modernism changed all this. Photographers such as Friedlander had taken up a more self-conscious, almost existentially formal attitude towards image-making: layering images, ruthlessly cutting the frame, sometimes doing away with the idea of “subject” entirely.
Rahman convincingly shows how Singh came to adopt these attitudes. Consider Crawford Market, Bombay, Maharashtra (1993), published in Bombay. Shot—for once—from within the thick of things, the picture shows a band of porters, alternately blurred and in focus, who are drinking tea. From the bottom-left corner a large arm intrudes, carrying a brass pot and pouring tea into a white cup, and from the upper-right border two legs descend to rest on a mango crate. (The anonymous limbs are an homage to Friedlander, who often deployed a similar trope.)

From experiments with focus and multilayered composition to fragmented form and cut frame, there is so much happening in this photograph. Nevertheless, the image leaves you cold. You cannot shake off the impression that Singh’s shot is somehow unadventurous, fit for the BBC Travel section. This is not a criticism of exotic subject matter (though critics such as Max Kozloff describe the scene as exotic—in praise). It is an issue of human presence, or rather, the lack of it, on the part of the subjects and on the part of the photographer.

Rahman considers Singh’s interaction with American modernism in purely formal terms. But form and sensibility are inseparable. The great modernist American photographers produced an extraordinarily personal body of work. Winnogrand, for example, savagely roamed New York’s streets and his photographs are practically giddy with the excitement of social observation. Gedney, who cut his teeth shooting the rural poor in Eastern Kentucky, made images of heroic sensuality. Arbus shot double-edged portraits of people on the margins of society: giants, cross dressers, nudists and so forth. And then there is Friedlander, Singh’s “master modernist of our time,” whose self-reflexive photographs are suffused with a sense of alienation.

Singh’s work is disappointingly impersonal by comparison. His image of the Crawford market tea stall is like a stencil of modernism. The composition is refined, but it does not correspond to a new way of looking. His essential attitude towards his subject is no different than what it was in Rajasthan.

To his credit, Singh admitted as much, or admitted something like it. Though he fervently praised modernist photography, he also distanced himself from the tradition. “However gifted the Indian photographer might be,” he writes in River of Color:

However personal and intimate his or her photographs, he or she will find it a quixotic quest to bond oneself to the Eurocentric Western canon of photography, in which the contemporary concepts of morality and guilt push aside the idea of beauty. Beauty, nature, humanism and spirituality are the four cornerstones of the continuous culture of India.

“Morality” and “guilt,” for Singh, might roughly translate to social engagement and self-awareness. As for “beauty,” “nature” and the rest—this is simply escapist nonsense. American modernists offered a rounded picture of social life and human possibility. Their work explored desire, shame, fraternity, guilt and loneliness, as well as joy and delight. Singh shied away from this challenge, embracing the rosy abstraction of India’s “continuous culture,” like the intellectuals Naipaul described. Photographs, in his conception, should not depict reality or express a complex inner state. They should simply comfort us and convey joy.

“When men cannot observe,” Naipaul wrote, “they don’t have ideas; they have obsessions.” This statement could be a caption to Singh’s career. His failure to meaningfully adapt modernism essentially boils down to fear. To develop an individual voice, you have to go through some introspection. This in turn necessarily involves a social reckoning. Just as you have to figure out the colours you like and dislike, you have to figure out who you are trained to see and who you are trained to look past. As someone at the crosshairs of privilege (wealth; caste; class) and marginalisation (he was a photographer in a country that had no time for photography) the re-evaluation would likely have been tricky and painful for Singh. Then again, it could have led to something new and beautiful.

SINGH COINED THE PHRASE “Modernism on the Ganges” to describe his mature work, much of which was on display at the Breuer. By the mid 1980s, he was no longer reliant on foreign magazines, and worked independently. The images then are his best work; their limitations cannot be excused.

Among these images, his signature shot is a version of the tableau, which often features a small to medium-sized group of individuals, arranged in striking formal patterns, in a representative milieu. Morning on Panchganga Ghat, Benares, Uttar Pradesh (1985) is a good example.

People ascend and descend steps at a ghat. The figures are carefully spread out, almost like the hands of clock, across the image. A smiling woman in conversation, caught in sunlight on the right; an older man, on the far left, heading for a bath; children, facing away from us in the near ground; a turbaned man seated at the top of the steps. It is true that a young boy, neatly posing, stands in the middle, his shadow crisp against the white wall. But he is hardly the photograph’s subject. Looking down, too far to appear pensive, he has been chosen for the maroon dhoti he is wearing—which matches the colour of the shrine beside him—as much as anything else.

Morning bears some resemblance to the work of the American photographer Alex Webb, who also made multi-scene group portraits. But Webb’s images are thrilling precisely because of their polyphonic drama and interplay. Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas (1996), for example, juxtaposes young lovers in the foreground with a silhouette of a father holding his child in the background; there is an internal logic and emotional immediacy here that is absent from Singh’s scene. (Bear in mind that Webb was an outsider in Mexico, where he shot the photo.)

Granted, there is no religious frenzy in Morning; Singh is not peddling exotic visions of Benares. But neither is he offering a vision of his own. Webb’s human stories call to one another, suggesting a larger conception of society or fate, a conception that, above all, challenges us to think. Singh’s characters merely occupy the same scene.

There is likewise no question of people pausing and reflecting, or, more generally, of the frame as a space for reflection. A pensive image has to feel subliminally animated by thought; there needs to be a sense of mystery. The photographer has to convince us that people are thinking and, more importantly, make us want to know what they are thinking. Only then will the subjects’ inner lives, withheld from us by the mute image, be a source of aching drama. Webb’s characters are unforgettable, even if we know nothing about them. Singh’s are flat, passive rather than pensive; he was himself uninterested in them.

Most of the provincial and rural images on display suffer the same weaknesses: Singh has little interest in people, and his style is not interesting.
Something different happens in the metropolis. Here he responds to the built environment, reading larger social and historical shifts in objects and monuments. The result is a form of modernist critical analysis. Singh remains emotionally absent, but his mind is set to work. His key (but by no means only) insight, as Chaudhuri persuasively explains, is that globalisation separates a city from its own past. A case in point is Victoria Terminus, Bombay, Maharashtra (1991), which shows the great building in Bombay through a blue fly-net held up by a passing vendor.

On occasion, Singh used the chaos of modernisation as a sort of formal challenge. Consider Subhas Chandra Bose Statue, Calcutta, West Bengal (1986). The statue, located in the far background, is framed by the pane-less square window of an olive-green open door crookedly hanging in the foreground, which in turn is cut off by an anonymous human hand. A bright white government bus in the middle distance enters (or exits) the frame from the left. Finally, right at the frame’s centre are two legs, belonging to a man, strangely bent over so that his torso is covered by the door.

For all the differing textures, layers of focus, and forms, the image feels harmoniously composed. The statue far away and the window up close; the white bus on the left and green door on the right; the jutting hand and dangling legs: every locus of interest has a counterpoint. Nor is the sense of calm artificial. Though the statue’s contemporary irrelevance is clearly framed, there is no melodrama over ruin or repugnance towards commerce. The ambiguous jumble of change and stasis has been calmly accepted.

Social change is a more complex matter and Singh does his best to register it from afar. In this regard, Ganapati Immersion, Chowpatty, Bombay, Maharashtra (1989) can be chalked up as a success. The image, which Singh seems to have been shot while knee-deep in water, shows a mass of people in the sea, some with their clothes coloured pink, standing around a large Ganesh statue. Though you can make out a few people further back in the scene, the water in the foreground blurs most of the individuals, imbuing them with a collective identity. It is a poignant, if convenient, scene; the shabby pink shirts plangently rhyming with Ganesh’s skin.

This sort of studied blurring will not work up close. But Singh’s diorama logic called for portraits. Consider Slum Dweller, Dharavi (1984). Shot from a slum lane, the camera peers up into the opening of a loft, out of which a man, his face smeared in grime, looks out uncomfortably. Beside him, the legs of a woman extend down a wooden staircase. Her pink sari is visible up to her waist, above which she is covered by the slum’s walls. Beneath the man, an electric-blue metal sheet, largely eroded by rust, makes for a sharp contrast with the pink. To the far left—Singh has a genius for latitudinal arrangement—two garments, yellow and violet, hang to dry. He is plainly taken by the vivid colours, and would like us to join in on the fun. Singh’s aesthetic instinct is shocking in the context. The “slum dweller” has been reduced to an animal caught in headlights.

Pavement Mirror Shop (1991) is the best photo on view. An intricate grid of reflections, it includes three or four street scenes in miniature, and a band of people in the background, seen through a gap in the hanging mirrors. The scene is as “non-narrative” as any Singh captured. The difference is that, for once, he put himself on the page. In the blurred surface of a mirror, hung near the frame’s upper border, you see his eyes pressed against his camera. He is looking at himself, and the people around him, aware that the two are somehow related. Too bad he stopped looking.

Ratik Asokan is writer based in New York.

READER'S COMMENTS

One thought on “Out of Focus”

A very perceptive criticism of Raghubir Singh’s work based on insight in photography and its practise in India in the context of the international( read american) photography’s young turks’ works in the sixties and seventies.
The article seems to hold grudge as RS had semifeudal background, had money and was obsessed with his home state Rajasthan, attributes not liked by the author. These aspects may have their share in influencing RS’s approach to photography but they did not anyway dim his talent. The discussion why at time RS looked out of his depth in portraying people, is illuminating. Author could have identified contemporary Indian photographers’ approach as a context of RS’s work as he has done with ref to the american contemporaries.Overall a very readable and informative survey of RS’s work.

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