Fusing Tradition with Modernity: Raghubir Singh's Exhibition "Modernism on the Ganges"

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Renowned Vogue editor Diana Vreeland infamously remarked, "Pink is the navy blue of India." This statement comes readily to light in Raghubir Singh’s photography, a visual kaleidoscope celebrating the vibrant colors and whirring rhythm of life that is India.  In Singh's latest exhibition, "Modernism on the Ganges," currently showing at The Met Breuer in New York City, the universe of his street photography tracks from quiet towns and sacred areas on the Ganges River to the busy, burgeoning streets of Calcutta.  Singh's images, shot exclusively in color, successfully merge old world traditions and subject matter with modern photographic styles and techniques.  Singh's unique visual hybrid offers an aesthetic that is equal parts visual combustion and visceral emotion. 

A forerunner in the art of color street photography, Raghubir Singh (1942–1999) was born into an upper-class family in Rajasthan, India.  Though he lived much of his life abroad, his native homeland was always the focus of his work.  Like many photographers of his era, Singh began his career as a photojournalist.  From the late 1960s, he contributed images to well-known publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Life and National Geographic, while advancing his own photographic projects.  Singh considered "Monsoon Rains" (1967) to be his first successful artistic photograph.  Depicting four women gathered on the bank of the Ganges River during the annual monsoon season, this photograph speaks to the relationship between land, climate, and traditions in India that informed Singh's artistic perspective and much of his work.

By the 1970s, Singh's photography focused on the city of Calcutta and later his native state Rajasthan, examining the traditional ways of life that were still evident there.  In "Catching the Breeze" (1975), a woman on a rope swing during monsoon season provides art historical reference to a Rajput court painting, folding India's history into the present day, as is seen in many of Singh's works. 

Over time, as he evolved away from photojournalism, Singh employed a more modern perspective and technical approach.  Working with Kodachrome color slide film, he teamed with processing labs in New York and Paris to manipulate the color profile of his images during the printing process to achieve the precise desired color saturation and visual effect.  Singh also used the dye-transfer process as another means to balance the degree of color immersion in his images.  "Fruit-Seller and a Boy with a Child" (1979) sharply contrasts the vivid hues of the produce and fruit stand against the neutral tinges of the riverfront and surrounding natural setting.

Singh frequently returned to Calcutta to procure more urban images in the mid-1980s.  He continued to pay homage to the colorful and spiritual aesthetic tradition of India, while incorporating modernity through his subject matter.  His work often features street scenes with people carrying out their typical activities, moving routinely through their days.  Singh was deeply influenced by the humanism of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and the effect in his treatment of photographic subjects is poignant and lingering.  They are often shown in passive portrayals of everyday life, hinting at a greater story than that momentary glimpse.  Singh's photograph "Victoria Terminus" (1991) captures a scene outside the city's main train station, infused with the brisk movement of urbane passersby and the contrast of a bright, floating mosquito net. 

Alternatively, Singh's subjects look back directly and intensely into the camera, and the viewer is actively drawn into dialogue with the image.  "Slum Dweller" (1990) emphasizes the impenetrable stare of a slum resident resting in his bed loft.  This unrelenting portrait reveals a world about circumstance and human emotion.

Singh turned his attention to Bombay, India’s dense business capital in the early 1990s. He was fascinated by the city's progressive character and its blend of Eastern and Western cultural elements. Influenced by photographer Lee Friedlander, Singh experimented with layering and fragmenting his imagery, using plate glass windows and mirrors as reflectors within the photos.  "Pavement Mirror Shop" (1991) is a collage of reflections and frames-within-frames, echoing the dense sensory experience of India's city streets.  In his final key body of work, Singh's theme was the Ambassador car, an automobile manufactured in India.  To him, the Ambassador was an important symbol of the nation's progress, its commercial aptitude and having furthered its path into a modern future. 

Time and again, tradition and modernity intertwine to create the content of Singh's photography.  His images of India are undoubtedly profound, but what is within those images endures within the viewer.  Singh's work examines the intricacies of development in process for a vast, emergent country.  In this exhibition showcase and beyond, it is these unearthed parallels and contrasts that resonate as a love letter to his homeland of India, both the subject and soul of Raghubir Singh.

Article by Jennifer Sauer

Jennifer Sauer is a writer who holds an M.A. in Literary Arts from New York University.  Her background includes writing and communications for diverse fields including the arts, charitable foundations and the financial sector.  She lives in New York City with her husband and son.