Raghubir Singh: River of Color

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through May 2

By Fred Camper

In the 19th century, at the height of Britain’s colonial rule, much of Indian art seemed to collapse. Previously artists had created complex, multicolored views with multiple perspectives, but at that point many began imitating the new perspective of the camera, their paintings almost mechanically aping British photographers’ rectilinear compositions. Not long after, Indian artists began hand-coloring photos. Some simply enhanced the flesh tones, but others created complex, decorative tapestries that gave Indian photography some of the liveliness and sensuality of the earlier painting.

Contemporary Indian photographer Raghubir Singh does not manipulate his images as far as I can tell; this is relatively straight photography. Yet his color sense reminded me of the earlier tradition of hand-painting photos. Indeed, Singh refers to that tradition (and others in the history of Indian art) in the introduction to his book River of Color, which accompanies this Art Institute exhibit of 86 of his photographs, most from the last two decades.

While exhibition titles are often self-consciously cute and inappropriate, this one is perfect: Singh’s photos, seen individually or as a group, are like a river of contrasting colors–bright garments against an otherwise bleak slum, green fields against a blue sky, a shiny automobile against a bland facade. And Singh depicts often chaotic Indian life in compositions that are rarely geometric or formally self-enclosed. Unlike many Western art photographers, who impose preconceived ways of seeing on their material, Singh lets his subjects determine his vision. The peacock with tail feathers spread in one image could serve as a metaphor for Singh’s work: there’s an element of proud display somewhat at odds with the rest of the composition, including pigeons around the peacock and some greenery a bit like its plumage, though not so much it seems an echo. Similarly, the multiple images in Pavement Mirror Shop–each mirror offering a different view of the street–seems an exaggerated, somewhat distorted version of most of the images in the show, which offer multiple perspectives.

Americans might attribute some of the contradictions in Singh’s images to his subjects’ poverty, and a number of photos do indicate that Indian living spaces can be chaotic. In Slum Dweller the face of one child and the legs of another poke out of an opening to a tiny attic space. Yet this interior is photographed in such a way that its walls, ceilings, and vertical supports seem arbitrary, as if this ramshackle structure were both prison and passageway to freedom. Similarly, A Family shows people living and sleeping in the street–babies, children, and adults standing, sitting, and lying on cots, each oriented in a different direction. There’s a building behind them, but we don’t know how crowded it would be if everyone were inside. This image gives a strong sense of the lack of boundaries in street life–an arm intruding at the left reminds us that others might enter this “home” at any time. One also notices that not everyone in the family is connected to everyone else; these poses could be expressions of individuality, but it’s hard not to read them as indications of a family under stress.

At other times the near chaos of Singh’s images seems to reflect contradictions in the culture. Most of After an Accident is filled with the image of the red cab of an overturned truck; part of a bright advertisement on the truck is also visible. The rest of the image shows green fields with farmers, cows, and a hill stretching off into the distance. Here two cultures collide–one oriented to the land and governed by gravity, the other the result of machines, which can seem to compress distances and make transport seem effortless.

What makes these photographs work, however, is not just their depiction of social contradictions but a kind of rhythmic undercurrent created by their shapes and colors. Singh doesn’t seek order in chaos so much as he finds a kind of visual music in what he sees. The contrast between red cab and green fields in After an Accident is not only thematic but visual: it registers with the impact of a loud clang. In his introduction Singh writes that his subject is never “beauty seen in abjection” but “the high range of the colouratura of everyday India. Those delicious…high and low notes, they do not exist in the Western world.” Yet he never tries for the self-contained formal perfection found in many Western art photographs. Partly to remind us of the essential incompleteness of any photograph, Singh often shows only part of the human figure–focusing on the hands of two women gossiping, or showing only the top part of a woman’s head as she stands before the sea. He directs our attention not only to his images but to the scenes beyond them–to life itself, from which his photos are mere excerpts.

In 1966, when he was a young man, Singh encountered the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson during one of the several trips he made to photograph India. Watching him work for a few days, Singh was impressed (“He was an original!”), and today he calls him the “first artist-photographer to look at Indians as individuals.” Yet Cartier-Bresson’s photos of India–insofar as they can be judged from the book Henri Cartier-Bresson in India–are very different from Singh’s. Though Cartier-Bresson was clearly open to India’s crowds, contradictions, and chaos, he organized most of his pictures around a single focal point or central direction: a key person in the center of a crowd, pilgrims all facing one way. His 1948 photo of Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral pyre–taken on his first trip to India–places the pyre at the exact center of the image, surrounded by crowds. Singh’s 1984 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Funeral, by contrast, is taken from the point of view of someone in the midst of the crowd. The funeral pyre is central but distant, much smaller than in Cartier-Bresson’s image; the central foreground is dominated by a person reading a newspaper, seen from behind.

Singh never presumes that an event can be distilled into a single essence but embodies a variety of attitudes toward it. His images’ lack of a single focus seems the result of his vision, based on long observation, of Indian life as a skein of ultimately unresolvable contradictions. Similarly, while Cartier-Bresson–like many Western art photographers–rejected color, Singh embraces it; color allows the energy and meaning of his images to be diffused throughout the composition. Its sensuality permeates the photograph, whereas black and white has typically been better suited to channeling the subject matter toward a single meaning.

Perhaps Singh’s strongest images are those whose contradictions cannot be reconciled or understood, that leave one scratching one’s head in amazement. Man Diving shows the tops of temples poking up above the floodwaters of the Ganges. Boys play on the temple tops; one is seen in midair in an almost perfectly horizontal dive. Seemingly defying gravity, this figure could be seen as a metaphor for Singh himself: tied neither to the traditional nor the modern, he explores India’s vast spaces, trying to capture them all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Man Diving”.