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.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness