Obituary: Raghubir Singh

Bruce Palling
Wednesday 21 April 1999 23:02

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.

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