Obituary: Raghubir Singh

RAGHUBIR SINGH captured Indian life like no other artist. His dozen or so books put him in the forefront of photographers world-wide. At the time of his death, of a massive heart attack, he was at the pinnacle of his career: in the past few months, tens of thousands saw his retrospective exhibitions in New Delhi and Chicago, while his last book, River of Colour (1998), was highly acclaimed both in the West and the subcontinent. Most major photographic collections in the world have examples of his work, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

His first book, Ganges: sacred river of India, published in 1974 and with an introduction by Eric Newby, had an immediate impact and quickly ran to several editions. In his customary approach to work, he had spent more than a decade working on the book, journeying numerous times to the same location along the river Ganges to capture particular shots. There is always a sense of immediacy in his pictures because of his obsession with non-interference in his subject matter.

This approach means that viewing his work for the first time is like being a trespasser into another culture and existence. Because he was obsessed with authenticity, his pictures have a vividness and immediacy that convey the essence of numerous aspects of Indian life. As other critics have noted, his real passion was for portraying people so that it is rare to see a shot that does not have a living person within it.

He actually met Henri Cartier-Bresson in Jaipur in 1966, but was never tempted to shoot in black and white. As he said in the introduction to his last book, "Unlike those in the West, Indians have always intuitively seen and controlled colour", adding that, while he appreciated and admired black-and-white photography, "the Indian photographer cannot produce the angst and alienation rooted in the works of Western photographers such as Brassai, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus". He thought long and hard about the art of photography and his lengthy forewords explain the limitations of modernism in portraying Indian culture.

In his approach to his art, Singh was nothing less than single- minded, which meant he was forever getting involved in squabbles, rows and feuds. It was always a risky business mentioning an old friend or colleague in case in the interim there had been some incident that provoked his wrath or contempt. After this hurdle had been overcome, there was usually half an hour spent denouncing his latest publisher as a knave, fool or both before he calmed down and spoke lucidly about current events in Indian politics, the work of an Iranian film-maker or the state of play at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Raghubir Singh was born in Jaipur in 1942 into a family of Rajput aristocrats. His grandfather was commander-in-chief of the Jaipur Armed Forces and his father a Thakur or feudal landowner in the Jaipur district of Khetri, although by the time of Independence the family fortunes were waning. As he commented in the introduction to his last book, "My father's Arab stallions were sold off; the horse carriages began to rot. Our joint family house broke up, our large Haveli house became fragmented. I saw no future in staying."

He was educated at St Xavier's School in Jaipur and then the Hindu College in Delhi but dropped out in his first year first to become a tea planter. When that avenue failed he went to Calcutta and spent months photographing street scenes and meeting with such artists as the film-maker Satyajit Ray.

His first break came in the mid-Sixties when Life magazine published eight pages of his photographs of student unrest. He later moved to Hong Kong after being given several assignments from leading international magazines in his mid-twenties.

We first met in 1972 in Indochina, where he was photographing a rocket festival along the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane for National Geographic. Typically, while every other observer was watching gingerly from the river-bank as these huge unstable projectiles whisked off their bamboo launchpads, Raghubir actually climbed to the top of them to get a better shot as the projectile hurtled a few feet past him.

Always a peripatetic person, he then lived in Hong Kong with his French wife, the photographer Anne de Henning. After Ganges was published, he returned to live in Paris, but was rarely there for more than a few weeks before taking off again to some part of the subcontinent. He also made occasional forays into Africa and even Bradford on one occasion, but no books came out of these assignments. Singh was a self-confessed "semi-nomad" with boxes of books and photographs piled in friends' houses and apartments throughout the world.

Unlike other Indian photographers, he did not devote himself to a single region and was proud of the fact that he was the first northern Indian to do photographic books on Kerala and Tamil Nadu. I usually found myself proof-reading and editing his lengthy forewords for his books, which was always a challenging and stimulating experience. He was unfailingly honest and blunt - his first comment when he read my book on India was "Bruce, there are many mistakes!"

He had close relationships with a vast array of artists and intellectuals around the world. Satyajit Ray wrote an introduction to his book on Rajasthan (Rajasthan, India's Enchanted Land, 1981), while V.S. Naipaul conducted a dialogue with him for the preface to his book on Bombay (Bombay, 1994) and R.K. Narayan wrote the introduction to Tamil Nadu (1997).

For a long period Thames & Hudson published him including his books on Kerala, Kashmir, Calcutta, Benares and Rajasthan, but there was the inevitable falling out over the contract, the design or colours used by the printers or the commission levels on foreign sales. Similar problems meant that he was no longer given assignments by National Geographic or The New York Times magazine, although he had been friendly with the current editor of The New York Times for decades until some trifling incident temporarily ended the relationship.

His close friends, while on occasion being exasperated with his Rajput pride and certainty veering on stubbornness, loved him for his honesty and integrity and his cosmopolitan approach to life. Money was usually in short supply but he managed to live the way he wanted. He religiously read the New York Review of Books and had a vast knowledge of Western art and culture - contemporary and classical. In recent years, when not in the subcontinent, he based himself in a flat on Connaught Square in Bayswater, but he gave it up last year and moved to Manhattan, where he taught at Columbia University and the New York School of Visual Arts. He formed a close relationship with Gwen Darien, an art curator, and appeared at last to be more content with life and at ease with himself.

After the widespread acclaim for his photographic books on India, including a yet unpublished book on the Ambassador car, his last project was a whimsical collection of self-portraits with the working title of "Mischief".

Raghubir Singh, photographer: born Jaipur, India 22 October 1942; married 1974 Anne de Henning (one daughter); died New York 18 April 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent