Sunday 07 February 1999
(Phaidon Press, pounds 35)
This is possibly the best guide to India that you could find. The least convenient and practical - it hardly fits snugly under the arm, let alone in the pocket, and gives no directions on how to get places, where to stay or how much it will cost - but River of Colour plunges you into the midst of this immense, multi-faceted nation and will leave you with a hunger for exploration that best serves the true traveller.
Raghubir Singh has been photographing his country for 30 years; the 130 pictures that make up this book call upon his journeys over those three decades, moving from mountain to plain, river to city, festival to private home; from north to south, west to east. He works always in colour, and in an opening essay lays claim to the "emotional plunge" of colour as peculiarly Indian: "Indians know colour through intuition, while the West tries to know it through the mind." Looking through these pages, it is easy to agree: stretches of ferric-red earth, open casts of river that throw back the sky's multitudinous hues of blue, lilac, grey, even, refuse to just quietly be. Instead they conspire with the sun-splashed yellow and marigold orange of a guru's garland; or the pea-green of a young boy's shirt; or the plastic scarlet of a mirror's frame on a market stall. The result is a dazzling array of life in all its fullness.
As with all great art, and Singh's pictures can be counted in these ranks, great craft lies behind these images. Take a photograph of a busy, chaotic scene and you will produce a chaotic picture; not Singh. He captures the bustle, the disorder, but is constantly directing the viewer's eye, so that we navigate the photograph from one element to another and life unfolds at its own pace within the frozen moment. He is a worthy successor to Cartier-Bresson, one of his heroes.
This is not a book that makes an inventory or catalogue of a country. Like the elephant that walks into a photograph of a man cleaning his bicycle, the implication is India cannot be so neatly contained. Religion, history, politics and pop culture all make vibrant contributions, sometimes creating bizarre juxtapositions: a barber's hands echo a statue of the multi-limbed goddess Kali; an imperial lion outside the Victoria Terminus, Mumbai, is apparently trapped in a market-trader's butterfly net. There are only a few notes to these photographs. One explains that the Dikshitar Brahmins do not believe in educating their daughters. It leaves you wondering about the slightly listless expression of the two girls pictured. Here, as elsewhere, River of Colour raises more questions than it answers - which is just as it should be.
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