Perfectly Banal and Perfectly Obvious

Modernism in Indian art history developed in conversation with the cultural dilemmas and contradictions during the colonial regime. The ensuing tensions between the Western convention of academic art and the essentialist espousal of an Oriental past eventually led to cultural symbiosis in Indian modernist aesthetics. In the works of artists like K.H. Ara, Ramkinkar Baij, and Sayed Haider Raza, indigenous traditions interacted with modern techniques to address the heterogeneity of caste, religion, gender, and race in the cultural fabric of India. As pertinent studies have shown, unlike the later modernist preoccupation in the West that strived towards the sublime purity of human expressions, modernism in India and other postcolonial nations are fundamentally rooted in the reorganisation of socio-cultural history (Kapur, 298). From this perspective, it is interesting to note how photography participated in these intersectional dialogues, given the technology’s inextricable relation to the colonial enterprise. The cultural transactions that shaped modernist photography in India can be aptly located in the oeuvre of Raghubir Singh. In fact, the hybridised form of Indian modernism becomes apparent in Singh’s stylistic concerns. I would attempt to read his photographs in the purview of contesting aesthetic traditions that anticipated photographic modernism in India.

In the late 1960s, Raghubir Singh started his career as a photojournalist for The National Geographic magazine. Having stumbled upon a soiled copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, Beautiful Jaipur (1948) in his parents’ library, Singh was inspired enough to follow the French photographer’s aesthetic footprints. In 1966, he met Cartier-Bresson in Jaipur and assisted him during several shoots. The compositional precision and discipline in Singh’s early photographs are often seen as a direct homage to his new-found master. But his unyielding preference for colour photography was strongly refuted by Cartier-Bresson, who considered black and white photographs as the only medium of artistic expression. Throughout his career, Singh adamantly emphasized on the significance of colour in Indian culture and spiritual heritage by referring to Hindu mythological sources. In the Introduction to his last exhibition book, The River of Colour (1998) he writes, “The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt, linked to death – 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. (8)”

Before colour photography was seriously considered as an art form – momentously marked by William Eggleston’s 1976 exhibition at MoMA – European and American photographers often harped on the East-West dichotomy to promulgate a romanticised celebration of black and white aesthetics. Robert Frank, for example, claimed that black and white “symbolise the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is subjected. (Dyer, 188)” In 1958, when Dorothea Lange photographed across India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Singapore, she argued, “the tropics, and it may be Asia, cannot be photographed on black and white film… the pageant is vast, and I clutch at tiny details, inadequate. (Acker, 113)” Raghubir Singh’s argument for photographing in colour followed from such discursive constructs. His formulation of an alternative, typically Indian photographic vision, therefore, resorted to the philosophical tenets of the nation’s majoritarian religion. However, Singh’s work was influenced by multifarious Indian aesthetic traditions whose formal plurality exceeded his theoretical grounds.  

In 1967, Singh’s remarkable photograph, Monsoon Rains depicts four women huddled together in an open field amidst the monsoon showers. He famously claimed it as his first successful photograph. The tower-like composition and the statuesque steadiness of the figures illustrate the women’s stern resilience against all odds. Vast stretches of farmland in the background further create a theatrical space to make the figures prominent. Suggestive of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, the tacit combination of forms, gestures, and soft hues indicates an atmospheric equilibrium and harmony in the scene. On a closer look, however, the precarious situation of these bodies unfold in the grinning face of the woman (left) and the translucent surface of the skin visible through a single piece of cloth (front). Beneath their stoic postures, these details betray the social and material conditions of the labourers. The inimitable erotic sensibility in the visual motif of wet clothes reappears as traces of destitution in the photograph. This resignification evokes an uncanny reminiscence of the figure studies by Hemendranath Majumdar, who popularised the ‘wet-saree effect’ in academic painting.

Monsoon Rains, Monghyr, Bihar, 1967. ©2020 Succession Raghubir Singh

Monsoon Rains, Monghyr, Bihar, 1967. ©2020 Succession Raghubir Singh

Palli Pran (The Soul of the Village), Hemendranath Majumdar, 1921.

Palli Pran (The Soul of the Village), Hemendranath Majumdar, 1921.

In 1921, Majumdar introduced his signature style in the painting, Palli Pran (The Soul of the Village). Thereafter, he painted several scenes of Bengali upper-class women in wet clothes with unmistakable erotic redolence. Interestingly, Majumdar’s method was fairly photographic. Even though he painted the women in studios, the figures were transposed to imaginary rural settings in many of his works. Majumdar’s artistic vision became that of a voyeuristic photographer, as if as it were. As one popular Bengali joke of that time goes, “After Mazumdar, [our] mothers and daughters hardly dared to go down to the local pond for fear of artists lurking behind trees and bushes. (Mitter, 140)” Since he belonged to the school of academic art with painters like Atul Bose, Majumdar’s photographic language was not unsought. Embracing the mimetic precision of Victorian naturalism, they stood in opposition to the Bengal School of orientalist painting, headed by the arch orientalist, Abanindranath Tagore. While they were accused of catering to early Western modernist ideals, they also questioned the validity of Oriental historicity in fostering nationalist cultures. Decades later, when modernism was gradually conceptualised in the medium of photography, the vestiges of academic art tropes persisted in varying degrees; and quite notably in the early photographs of Raghubir Singh.

On the other end, Singh’s professed inspiration from Mughal miniature paintings is often pointed out in his work. Deep-seated in the Oriental history of India – dating back to the 7th century AD – miniature painting achieved its penultimate form under Mughal patronage (16th-18th century). A syncretic style evolved when local art traditions came in touch with Persian culture. The flattening of space, a vast array of colours, and detailed focus on multiple characters became the distinguishing feature of miniature paintings during this period. However, with the declining influence of the Mughals, this tradition was co-opted by Rajput patrons with themes concerning mythological incidents from Hindu epics. In the late 1960s, Raghubir Singh studied the form and history of miniature paintings when he was asked to photograph the private collection of the Jaipur City Palace’s director. His eventual obsession with longer depths of field and multiple focal points share formal equivalences with miniature art.

Incidentally, around the same time in 1969, William Gedney visited Benares for a fellowship programme, followed by another visit to Calcutta later in 1979. During these visits, Raghubir Singh got acquainted with Gedney and the latter’s influence on Singh’s vision, especially in works like Banaras (1987) and Calcutta (1988), also becomes palpable. The street compositions are open-ended, accidental, and teeming with plenitude. Seeking to capture the “geographical culture of India”, the photographs constitute a medley of de-centred human actions, animals, objects, and symbols across different states. This dissonant multitude of bodies in somewhat abstract congruence defined Indian modernist ethos for Raghubir Singh. As Shoma Chaudhuri brilliantly underlines, there is a democratic quality in Singh’s photographs. Multiple decisive moments unfold among “a disinterested flow of humanity in the background. (Outlook)”

Rick¬shaw Traffic, Benares. ©2020 Succession Raghubir Singh

Rick­shaw Traffic, Benares. ©2020 Succession Raghubir Singh

In the image titled, ‘Rickshaw Traffic, Benares’, for example, the claustrophobic frame is filled with diverse characters and dispersed events clubbed together for the short-lived duration of a traffic jam. The Hindu ascetic, the bike rider, and the man on the left-hand corner are engaged in looking at a subject beyond the frame. The absent ‘subject’, interlocked by the characters’ momentary curiosity, forms the locus of the image’s perceptual weight towards the left. On the other hand, the rickshaw puller in the middle of this cacophony contemplatively looks ahead and beyond the right-hand frame; the turbaned person behind the ascetic is also lost in conversation away from the camera’s gaze. The disparate directions of attention symptomatically refer to the cohabitant plurality of India’s social life. Raghubir Singh’s role as a photographer is noticeably fixated by the sly gaze of a person towards the top-right corner of the frame, clearly foregrounding the authorial role in transcribing this multiplicity. This photograph incidentally belongs to his 1995 book, The Grand Trunk Road which documented the multicultural history of the eponymous transcontinental roadway (Chandrasekhar, 8).  Ironically, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement also gathered force during the 90s, pronouncing the mass sublimation of religious bigotry and intolerance in modern India. Not surprisingly, the semantic excess in Raghubir Singh’s later photographs reflected his yearning for a diversified modern-ist mosaic of India.

Subhash Chandra Bose Statue, Calcutta, West Bengal, 1986. ©2020 Succession Raghubir Singh

Subhash Chandra Bose Statue, Calcutta, West Bengal, 1986. ©2020 Succession Raghubir Singh

Raghubir Singh’s off-centred positioning of Subhash Chandra Bose’s statue in a 1986 photograph is a successful intimation of pluralism that exists without any centralising propensity. The titular figure of the image is shifted to the right and its (historical) framing is literalised by the window frame of the truck’s door – unceremoniously held in place by an anonymous hand. The broken-down truck, which is being repaired by a faceless person crouching behind the door, stands among the bustling activities of unconcerned pedestrians. Advertisements, historical memory, daily activities, and the varying tempo of movement and stillness in the scene imitate Singh’s understanding of Calcutta’s cultural pastiche. This relentless play of fragmented narratives verging on the amusing and the quotidian teasingly condenses the signification of the signboard, ‘Famous Circus’ at the heart of the image. On a formalist level, this photograph is a political articulation of pluralism whose aesthetic predicate goes back to the crowded multiplicity of miniature paintings. As the eminent critic, Max Kozloff observed, “if you want to know what a Rajput miniature painter learnt from Cartier-Bresson, then look at Raghubir Singh. (96)”  

The dialectical tensions and transitions between academic art import and oriental art tradition achieve formal synthesis in the aesthetic trajectory of Raghubir Singh. These non-photographic traditions can be astutely read as proto-modernist models that awaited the language of photography in the age of advanced modernism. Singh’s work is geographically categorised by territorial, cultural-historical, and ecological distinctions (Rajasthan, Kashmir, Kumbh Mela, The Ganges, The Grand Trunk Road, etc.). Yet, the density of human actions and their multifaceted interactions with immediate social circumstances surpass the burden of trite cultural signifiers associated with these spaces. What comes across in all his works, despite the different geographical locations and content, is the formalist contiguity of manifold gestures and intuitive movements in India’s social habitat. And this universal multiplicity goes to the extent of undermining Singh’s postulation of India’s diversity from a monolithic perspective, markedly that of Hindu cosmology.

He clarified that high-contrast black and white photographs cannot capture the varied shades of Indian life, but grey scales can express the “transposition of colours”. This is not merely a polemic claim, it should be located in Raghubir Singh’s obsession with the non-dichotomous, formal excesses of the medium, be it the heterogeneity of possible forms and gestures or the indefinable abundance of greys. American photographers like Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz pioneered colour photography by studying colour as a form and focussing on the banal details of everyday life. There is a blend of curiosity and nostalgia towards isolated objects and empty spaces in the approaching era of global capitalism. But Raghubir Singh’s use of colour elicited an abundance of hues that captured the graded heterogeneity of India’s public life and consequently, the wide-ranging modalities of modernity.



Santasil Mallik is a visual artist and independent author based in Kolkata, India. He is currently pursuing his research on Literary Visualities from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He is very passionate about various art forms. His recent short documentary Farrago (2019) was screened at several film festivals in Italy, Greece, Vietnam, Columbia.

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