Conversations in Colour

19 Aug – 10 Oct 2015

Conversations in Colour

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Raghubir Singh (1942–1999) is one of the giants of Indian photography. But he wasn’t a remote, Olympian giant—quite the reverse. Even as he worked on project after original project of his own, Singh was a generous mentor to younger artists. Conversations in Colour, an exhibition curated by Shanay Jhaveri, is at once a tour d’horizon of Singh’s achievement and a showcasing of new work by three photographers for whom Singh was an important personal and professional presence: Ram Rahman, Ketaki Sheth, Sooni Taraporevala.

A true eclectic (and autodidact), Singh candidly acknowledged that he built his ‘chromatic eye’ using Indian traditions while also borrowing from the West. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s grand venture of photographing ‘geographical culture’ was a constant guide, even though the Frenchman worked almost exclusively in black and white. If Lee Friedlander’s school of street photography was part of his mental workshop, Singh eschewed labels about belonging to such-and-such ‘movement’. The intellectual and political milieu of Calcutta provided Singh with much matter for dialogue and investigation—and yet, this photographer of so many Indian spaces (rivers and provinces but also drawing rooms) saw no contradiction in living much of his adult life outside India. With that said, it is also true than an iteration of influences does not ‘explain away’ the powerful newness of these images—whether of figures standing in lashing rain or of the iconic Ambassador car.

The emphasis in this exhibit is unflinchingly on colour. Singh was a pioneer of colour photography in the Indian subcontinent—and, in the international context, he was one of the few photographers who dedicated themselves seriously to colour photography and the possibilities it offered, when black and white photography was still the dominant format. And he repeatedly emphasized in his own writing—an important but rarely examined part of his practice—the centrality of colour in the Indian cultural imagination and in the field of Indian aesthetics, and how this informed his own choices.

Conversations in Colour also presents new and recent work by Rahman, Sheth and Taraoporevala. Guidance, mentoring and friendship: these become focii of interest. The exhibition provides a broad overview of the different approaches these three photographers employ when they use colour in their contemporary practice. Their images are not, strictly speaking, to be compared to Singh’s. Nevertheless, by choosing to display fresh bodies of work, rather than those that Singh hovered over, the artists and the exhibition celebrate association. Singh’s work provides a critical and historical context for these new, previously unseen, images—and for colour photography in the subcontinent. And it is these wide-ranging and large-spirited conversations that Conversations seeks to celebrate.