“For a nation of millions to make any kind of sense, it must base itself firmly on the concept of multiplicity, of plurality, and tolerance, of devolution and decentralization wherever possible. There can be no one way—religious, cultural, or linguistic—of being an Indian; Let difference reign.”
Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs showcases the trajectory of photographer Raghubir Singh’s career. His works are presented in dialogue with artists who have inspired him, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Satyajit Ray, and Helen Levitt.
Despite his momentous contributions to the art form, Singh’s influences often go unrecognized—he has not had a major exhibition since 1998, and this exhibit reflects the Met’s continuing efforts to include international artists and expose the global artistic process. The Met acquired their first photograph by Singh 25 years ago, when Singh himself was a frequent visitor to the museum. This exhibition is a sort of canonization for one of the most important photographers of the generation.
Born in 1942 in Jaipur, India; Singh began photographing his native land at the age of 14. He was a pioneer of color street photography, known for intermixing traditions of the East and the West. Although he spent most of his adult life travelling between Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York, he had a devout, visual passion for his native land India. His Western academic and artistic influence allowed him to capture India both as an insider and an outsider. He could immerse himself seamlessly into the Indian culture while being able to interpret it with an outsider’s perspective.
Unlike Bresson, whom he greatly admired, Singh insisted that he capture India in color photography. Color had always been a foundation of Indian art, and to betray the country’s abounding colors with black and white photography was to betray a large aspect of Indian culture. His photographs achieve a beautiful balance of colors: as saturated tones are often directly contrasted with muted ones. He wrote in 1998, “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.”
His artistic process was often a waiting game, anticipating the world to congeal into harmony—a fleeting moment in which he could capture reality’s beauty and chaos into four corners. His photographs carried mythic iconographies mixed with the dailiness of the regions; themes of monsoon and floods; and the natural unity of people and animals interacting and coexisting within the various terrains of India.
His photographs are patriotic. They expose the paradoxical truths of his native land: of agony and tenderness, of commotion and serenity.
On view at the Met Breuer now till January 2, 2018