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Obituary

Raghubir Singh; Photographer Captured Color of Life in India

April 24, 1999|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raghubir Singh, a photographer who captured the teeming wonders of India with an elegance matched by few others, has died.

Singh died Sunday in New York of a massive heart attack. He was 56.

In a career that began in the mid-1960s, Singh produced 13 books on India, exploring his homeland region by region.

His work currently is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in a retrospective show, "River of Colour: The India of Raghubir Singh." The title of the exhibition is also the title of Singh's last book, which was published late last year by Phaidon Press.

Singh's work has appeared in National Geographic, Life, Time and the New York Times. He has had exhibitions at the Dallas Museum of Art, Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

Singh, a man of strong intellect and opinion, was born into an aristocratic family in Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. His father was a feudal landowner, his grandfather the commander of the Jaipur Armed Forces. However, by the time India was gaining independence, the family's fortunes were dwindling. In the introduction to "River of Colour," he talked of his family's situation. "My father's Arab stallions were sold off . . . our large Haveli house became fragmented. I saw no future in staying."

Singh attended school in Jaipur before moving on to the Hindu College in New Delhi, where he studied art. He later dropped out to become a tea planter, but that life failed to produce a livelihood for him. With time on his hands, he began taking photographs using a camera his mother had given him as a youth. He moved to Calcutta to photograph street scenes and got his first commercial break in the mid-60s, when Life magazine published several pages of his photographs of student unrest in India.

That success fueled a career as a photojournalist that kept him in India until 1976. Then Singh, a self-confessed "semi-nomad," began to roam the globe, living and working in London, Paris, Hong Kong and New York, leaving boxes of books and photographs piled high in friends' houses along the way. Although money was often in short supply, it didn't prevent Singh from generally living in the manner he desired.

His travels usually took him back to India, where he seemed to feel most comfortable in working.

"There is one problem for me if I try to shoot in the West," Singh told the Washington Post some years ago. "There's an element of privacy . . . even on the street. You can't go up to someone and put your camera in his or her face. You can sneak a photograph, but you can't, you can't intrude on the person. Now, in India, you can do it all the time. No one minds. [And] every Indian person thinks of the photograph--the camera--as something before which he poses. So you might have shot several rolls of someone, you know, but that person . . . will not think that you have taken a photograph until he's struck a pose."

His work reflected a mastery of color and subtlety. "To see India monochromatically," he told Time magazine this year, "is to miss it altogether."

In books like "The Ganges" (Aperture, 1992), he reflected the broad cultural and geographic boundaries of his country, showing a lone bather at the river's source high in the mountains near Tibet to the tens of thousands of worshipers that gathered in the river in cities such as Banaras and Calcutta. A constant thread in his work was color, be it a child's simple red shirt against a backdrop of dull brown village roofs, or in the vibrant sari worn by a woman at a local fair.

Speaking of his color work, he explained that there were larger beliefs that formed the basis for the way he photographed India.

"The true Indian artist," Singh wrote, cannot "ignore the blessing of color that is written into the Indian idea of darshan--sacred sight--which we know since childhood. This idea is a way of seeing that encompasses the sensuality of touch and feel, human contact and intimacy. Black does not fit into the idea of darshan."

He also said that while he appreciated and admired black-and-white photography, he felt that Indian photographers were unable to "produce the angst and alienation rooted in the works of Western photographers such as Brassai, Bill Brandt, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus."

His work has won critical praise.

"Perhaps what I am most struck by in Singh's work is his ability to capture the everyday lives of his subjects--a rickshaw driver caught in a traffic jam, a water seller handing an aluminum bowl to a thirsty customer, a socialite reaching for an appetizer at a ritzy birthday party," Chitra Divakaruni wrote of Singh's book "River of Colour: The India of Raghubir Singh," in the Los Angeles Times this year. "In each case, we get a dizzy sense of entry into private existences we never would have known otherwise."

The writer V.S. Naipaul compared the effect of Singh's pictures to that of looking at Moghul miniatures.

"One can take in only a few at a time," Naipaul said. "They need attention. The pictures have to be read."

Singh is survived by a daughter, Davika, who lives in Paris.

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