Visions of a World Beyond the Frame

<i> Chitra Divakaruni is the author of "Sister of My Heart" and "The Mistress of Spices."</i>

“River of Colour,” the first retrospective look at the work of leading Indian photographer Raghubir Singh, is in all senses a big book. Its generous format allows the reproduction of foot-wide photographs (plus some spectacular double-pagers such as the artist’s famed “Morning on Dharbhanga Ghat, Benaras, Uttar Pradesh, 1987" in exquisite detail, and the introduction by Singh himself is an excellent apologia for color photography, which has traditionally been derided by art photographers.

It traces the history of photography in India from the late 19th century, with the advent of such colonial photographers as Samuel Bourne and Linnaeus Tripe, and it pays homage to such Western masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Atget, while delineating the very different Indian aesthetic: “optimism . . . sparkle . . . illusion--the Rasa of India’s pictorial spirit"--out of which Singh’s work arises. The book’s 11 sections, each introduced with an excerpt from one of Singh’s favorite writers, cover fascinatingly diverse subjects to offer us an authentic and indelible vision of a land that is at once teeming and tragic and triumphant.

Whereas Singh’s earlier books, such as “Kerala: The Spice Coast” or “Calcutta: The Home and the Street,” have focused on particular geographical regions, in “River of Colour” the focus is thematic. For the first time viewers can, with the turn of a page, be transported from the timelessness of a rocky pilgrimage route in the Himalayas to a starkly surreal desert landscape where a bride and groom stand as though amazed beside a harmonium player or to the urban reality of an overcrowded bus in the Punjab, with young men in orange turbans balanced precariously on its roof.

Images of water have always fascinated Singh, who has two previous books on the Ganges. Some of the most powerful pieces in this book depict water in its many forms. Among my favorites are his photographs of monsoons and floods--realities of life all across India. “Monsoon rains, Monghyr, Bihar, 1967,” which begins the book, is an excellent example of composition, color and texture. In the photograph, four women huddle together against a blurred blue landscape to protect one another from the force of the rains. As with many of Singh’s works, it is a subtle commentary on the Indian way of life, in which community is essential for survival. The quirky “Chessplayers, monsoon floods, Benaras, Uttar Pradesh, 1967"--two men sitting on a submerged veranda, engrossed in their game--shows us Singh’s awareness that humor is sometimes hidden in the heart of calamity.


Perhaps what I am most struck by in Singh’s work is his ability to capture the everyday lives of his subjects--a rickshaw driver caught in a traffic jam, a water seller handing an aluminum bowl to a thirsty customer, a socialite reaching for an appetizer at a ritzy birthday party. In each case, we get a dizzy sense of entry into private existences we never would have known otherwise. Caught in what Cartier-Bresson would term a “decisive moment,” the subjects are completely unself-conscious, as though the photographer were the proverbial fly on the wall. The photographs seem to continue beyond their frame, hinting at unseen worlds filled with complexity.

One photograph I found particularly memorable made me see India--which I’ve known since birth--anew. Titled “Employee in a household, Mumbai, Maharashtra, 1992,” it is a quiet domestic scene. An old woman in a cotton sari walks across a room with an armload of linen while two teenagers, fashionably attired in Western outfits, talk to each other. It’s unremarkable, really, a scene played out thousands of times each day in the metropolis. And yet there’s something in the way the girls have their backs turned to the servant woman, as if she doesn’t exist. Something in the happy patterns of their miniskirt and gold-buttoned jackets, the modern art hanging on the walls, the elegant sofa on which one of them sits. Something in the resigned gaze of the old woman, her thick glasses, the line of her mouth. Something in the way she walks, with enormous dignity and fortitude. It’s more than the simplistic juxtaposition of oppressor and oppressed, youth and age, poverty and self-indulgent wealth. I think it’s about how all these are intertwined in a world that is at once ironic and heartbreaking and beautiful, a world we are able to view--if only for a moment--through Singh’s lens without condescension and without sentimentality.