Conversations in Colour

19 Aug – 10 Oct 2015

Jhaveri Contemporary is pleased to present Conversations in Colour: Raghubir Singh with Ram Rahman, Sooni Taraporevala, Ketaki Sheth, an exhibition curated by Shanay Jhaveri. This will be the first exhibition of Raghubir Singh’s work in India since 1999. Organized in collaboration with the photographer’s estate, it gathers images from his entire oeuvre, starting with an early success, Monsoon Rains, Monghyr, Bihar, 1967. Singh spent his entire career photographing the ‘geographical culture’ of India, producing 13 books during his lifetime, each organized around a city, river or state. Impeccably researched, with authoritative texts written either by himself or an intellectual (or fellow artist) of international stature, Singh’s large format books in the 1970s were among the first of their kind in India. Published first by Indian and then, increasingly, Western publishers, these books had a wide appeal in India and abroad. Singh laboured over each book—its layout, selection and sequencing—and, insisting on artistic integrity, never permitted his photographs to be cropped. 

Singh was born into an upper-class Jaipur landowning family, whose feudal way of life was coming to an end after Independence. Singh’s enthusiasm for photography began when he was in high school, and he was an autodidact in this regard. By the late 1960s, he was a freelance photographer for Life, The New York Times, Stern and National Geographic. Even though Singh’s contributions to those international publications were formed by working within empirical parameters provided to him by picture editors, it was the tradition of Western street photography that was a major and lasting influence. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work served as a chief guide. Singh candidly acknowledged that he built his ‘chromatic eye’ using Indian traditions while also borrowing from the West; he was undaunted by the reactionary Indian nationalist attitudes of the immediate postcolonial period. Visits to and stays in Calcutta, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Satyajit Ray, and where he engaged in an intellectual and political dialogue with the city that was home to the Bengal Renaissance of the 19th century, were important in solidifying this eclectic attitude and method.

Conversations in Colour exhibits images from lesser-known bodies of work, on Rajasthan and Kashmir, alongside Singh’s iconic images of the Ambassador car. Singh was a pioneer of colour photography in the Indian subcontinent—and, in the international context, he was one of the few photographers who dedicated themselves seriously to colour photography and the possibilities it offered, when black and white photography was still the dominant format. Singh repeatedly emphasized in his own writing—an important but rarely examined part of his practice—the centrality of colour in the Indian cultural imagination and in the field of Indian aesthetics, and how this informed his own choices to work in colour rather than black and white.

The images on display in Conversations in Colour recognize and emphasize Singh’s formal achievements as a photographer. Raghubir Singh eventually attained a distinctly modernist visual language that reached its apotheosis in his Bombay series, but this exhibition draws attention as well to other aspects of his practice. Singh was (and this fact is not often acknowledged) one of the first Indian photographers to picture conditions of class and venture (photographically) into the homes of the Indian elite and middle class. He also captured with subtlety the transformed and transforming landscape of post-Independence India, keenly attentive always to the shifting political currents in the country. 

Singh’s rigour in maintaining his own practice did not prevent him from being a generous mentor to a younger generation of Indian photographers. He was always ready to give advice, show support, share ‘contacts’, provide photographic materials. He was a guiding presence for Sooni Taraporevala and Ketaki Sheth when they were working on their own photo books, Parsis and Twinspotting, respectively. Ram Rahman was a good friend, with whom he constantly had debates about ‘exotic’ and ‘orientalist’ clichés in Indian photography. 

Conversations in Colour presents new and recent work by Rahman, Sheth and Taraoporevala. Guidance, mentoring and friendship: these become focii of interest. The exhibition provides a broad overview of the differing approaches these three photographers employ when they use colour in their contemporary practice. Their images are not, strictly speaking, to be compared to Singh’s. Nevertheless, by choosing to display fresh bodies of work, rather than those that Singh hovered over, the artists and the exhibition celebrate association and friendship. Influence is distilled, lingers and perhaps continues to resonate over time. Singh’s work provides a critical and historical context for these new, previously unseen, images—and for colour photography in the subcontinent. In conversation and confluence but also in solitary splendour—Singh’s magnificent photographs are as timeless as they are historically significant. 

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