Raghubir Singh, Taxi Driver, Calcutta,1987, color photography, 24,8 x 36,9 cm, Museum Ludwig, Cologne © Succession Raghubir Singh, Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne
Credit: Raghubir Singh, Taxi Driver, Calcutta,1987, Museum Ludwig, Cologne © Succession Raghubir Singh, Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne

Raghu­bir Singh. Kolka­ta Raghu­bir Singh


Mu­se­um Lud­wig
50667 Köln

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The In­dian pho­to­g­ra­pher Raghu­bir Singh (1942–1999) re­peat­ed­ly re­turned to Kolka­ta (called Cal­cut­ta un­til 2001), and over the years he cre­at­ed a com­plex and mul­ti­lay­ered pho­to­graph­ic por­trait of the ci­ty. Hav­ing grown up in Jaipur, the cap­i­tal of the In­dian state of Ra­jasthan, Singh visit­ed Kolka­ta for the first time in 1975 be­fore he moved to Hong Kong and Paris; lat­er he lived in Lon­don and New York. In his street views in par­tic­u­lar, Singh con­dens­es Kolka­ta’s varied im­pres­sions in­to pho­to­graphs of im­pres­sive col­or and com­po­si­tion. Singh saw th­ese col­ors as char­ac­teris­tic of the ge­og­ra­phy and cul­ture of In­dia. He used them to di­rect the view­er’s at­ten­tion across the en­tire pic­ture so that the fore­ground and back­ground of­ten ap­pear as if on a sin­gle plane. In this way, the dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal lay­ers are equal­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the pho­to­graph. Singh’s pho­to­graphs are a cos­mopol­i­tan’s ho­mage to a cos­mopol­i­tan ci­ty.


In the pho­tog­ra­phy room, the Mu­se­um Lud­wig is pre­sent­ing twelve pho­to­graphs from Singh’s Cal­cut­ta se­ries, which have been part of the col­lec­tion since 2017. They are jux­ta­posed in the pre­sen­ta­tion with five pho­to­graphs by Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son, which he took dur­ing his trip to In­dia in 1947. Quo­ta­tions from Singh’s writ­ings com­ment on his pho­to­graphs and those of Carti­er-Bres­son and il­lus­trate his pho­to­graph­ic at­ti­tude.


Raghu­bir Singh be­gan work­ing as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist for In­dian and in­ter­na­tio­n­al publi­ca­tions such as Na­tio­n­al Ge­o­graph­ic, Life, Time, and the New York Times in the 1960s. He dis­cov­ered Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son’s pho­tog­ra­phy book Beau­ti­ful Jaipur as a schoolchild. In 1966 he first met Carti­er-Bres­son, who had an im­por­tant in­flu­ence on his work­ing meth­ods. Like Carti­er-Bres­son, Singh sought to com­bine the fleet­ing­ness of the mo­ment with com­po­si­tio­n­al ri­g­or. Un­like his role mod­el, how­ev­er, he de­cid­ed very ear­ly on to use col­or pho­tog­ra­phy. In his sem­i­nal 1998 text “Riv­er of Colour: An In­dian View,” Singh ex­plained how the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of col­or is root­ed in In­dian aes­thet­ics and cul­tu­r­al his­to­ry, and how col­or pho­tog­ra­phy was re­ject­ed as vul­gar by pho­to­g­ra­phers such as Walk­er Evans in the West­ern val­ue sys­tem. Singh ex­plains that that rasa, the in­ef­fa­ble men­tal state of ful­fill­ment when view­ing a suc­cess­ful art­work, is aimed at a re­cep­tion of art which main­ly re­lates to col­or and the at­mo­spheres as­so­ci­at­ed with it. At the same time, see­ing does not stand for a dis­tanced per­cep­tion, as in the West­ern tra­di­tion, but for one that con­tains the sen­su­al­i­ty of the sense of touch and sen­sus com­mu­nis. Singh was not in­ter­est­ed in us­ing col­or pho­tog­ra­phy to estab­lish a new style as an an­sw­er to the mod­er­nist pho­tog­ra­phy of Carti­er-Bres­son, An­dre Kertesz, and Lee Fried­lan­der. In­stead, he want­ed to shape pho­tog­ra­phy from an In­dian per­spec­tive. “West­ern mod­er­nism in pho­tog­ra­phy will in time be broa­d­ened, by non-West­ern artists through a fine dis­re­gard of the philo­soph­i­cal stance of the West and of the re­lat­ed rules of the game,” Singh be­lieved.


Singh de­vel­oped a pho­to­graph­ic stance around 1980 that made use of the qual­i­ties of street pho­tog­ra­phy, such as the snap­shot aes­thet­ic and unu­su­al choic­es of crop­ping, though with­out dis­tanc­ing him­self from the cho­sen sub­jects as “alie­nat­ed and dis­card­ed.” The in­ten­si­ty of Singh’s col­or pho­to­graphs stems large­ly from his abil­i­ty to give a new twist to mod­er­nist pho­tog­ra­phy in this sense.


Singh used crop­ping to con­vey ev­ery­day si­t­u­a­tions in public places as dis­tilled events, such as an ar­gu­ment in traff­ic or trad­ing in front of the stock exchange. A car is cen­tered in a pho­to of be­liev­ers cele­brat­ing the Dur­ga Pu­ja fes­ti­val at the Kali tem­ple com­plex; it be­comes syn­ony­mous with the re­li­gious scene and clash­es with its other­wise time­less ap­pear­ance. In the pho­to­graph of a ci­garette and tea shop, a par­ti­tion wall and a raised floor cre­ate a con­struc­tion of a pic­ture in a pic­ture which chal­lenges the view­er to ex­amine the pho­to­graph more close­ly. In many of his pho­to­graphs, Singh cre­ates an ten­sion be­tween old and new, his­to­ry and the pre­sent, as in the pho­to­graph of the court­yard of a state­ly build­ing, in which the old colo­nial world of Corin­thian columns and a neo­clas­si­cal de­pic­tion of Venus is en­livened with cat­tle, chick­ens, and a cat.


The pho­to­graphs in the Cal­cut­ta se­ries attest to Singh’s in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the ci­ty and its long his­to­ry, which was shaped by the Ben­gali Re­nais­sance, a re­form move­ment of in­tel­lec­tu­als in the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry who ini­ti­at­ed cul­tu­r­al, so­cial, and po­lit­i­cal change. Among them was the po­et, mu­si­cian, and philo­so­pher Ra­bin­dra­nath Ta­gore, to whom Singh pays tribute in pho­to­graphs such as one tak­en in the former mu­sic room in the Gosh fam­i­ly’s house. Another pho­to­graph shows two do­mes­tic work­ers lis­ten­ing to a con­cert of Ta­gore songs apart from the other guests. Among Singh’s por­traits from the Cal­cut­ta se­ries on view is a pho­to­graph of the film­mak­er Satya­jit Ray. Singh saw his films as a mod­el for the suc­cess­ful de­vel­op­ment of the con­nec­tion be­tween East and West forged by the Ben­gali Re­nais­sance. In his in­tro­duc­tion to the 1988 pho­tog­ra­phy book Cal­cut­ta: The Home and the Street, Singh wrote: “Cal­cut­ta be­came a reg­u­lar desti­na­tion of mine be­cause there the Ben­galis had cre­at­ed a cos­mopol­i­tan world.”


Raghu­bir Singh pub­lished thir­teen pho­tog­ra­phy books and re­ceived nu­mer­ous awards. Singh’s works are part of the col­lec­tions of the Metropol­i­tan Mu­se­um of Art, the Mu­se­um of Mod­ern Art, and Tate Mod­ern, among others.


Cu­ra­tor: Bar­bara En­gel­bach