At sunset, hundreds of citizens might gather at the shore of the Fraser River to refresh their bodies and spirits. Most of all, as photographer Raghubir Singh shows, life would be lived in bright, sensual hues, with red and gold saris set against blue-gray northern skies, their golden thread woven into the cloth, the imagination, the light itself.
India's people (if not India herself) have lived here for over a century. They first landed with Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1897, when a dozen or so of her majesty's Sikh soldiers jumped ship in Vancouver. Tenacious and rural, the Punjabi Sikhs became farmers and lumberjacks. Canada, and later the United States, soon passed laws to deny marriage and property rights, then to exclude altogether the people they erroneously referred to as "Hindus." The most famous historical challenge to these laws arrived aboard a tramp steamer, the Komagata Maru, which anchored at the north end of Burrard and Howe streets on May 23, 1914. For two months, the 376 Sikh, Hindu and Muslim immigrants on board were refused permission to land. Finally, as 200 members of the Irish Fusiliers and the Sixth Regiment prepared to storm the Komagata Maru with bayonets and heavy artillery, the Indians left Canada.
Nearly a century after this tragic confrontation, India, with roughly a billion people, remains exotic to Western eyes. As do, too often, Indo-Canadians. Former Canadian resident and novelist Bharati Mukherjee says our so-called "visible minorities" are rendered simultaneously invisible and over-exposed. "I have not met an Indian in Canada," she says, "who has not suffered the humiliations of being overlooked and from being singled out." Singh's images certainly does not overlook what is specific and wondrous about India, but neither do they single out India as a realm weirdly separate from the experience of the Westerner. Rather, Singh's work invites a cultural encounter designed to deepen our connection to enduring human values.
Raghubir Singh was born a Hindu in Rajastan in 1942. When he was 24 years old, he met the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had created a small book, Beautiful Jaipur, about Singh's hometown. The meeting was an inspiration to the young man, who had himself just begun using a camera.
"I'll never forget the champagne headiness of those days," he says. But in Paris in the 1970s when Singh was able to show his first two books to Cartier-Bresson, the older man barely glanced at them. "I knew he had no love for colour photography," says Singh. The same was true of most art and documentary photographers until recently.
At first glance, Singh's collected work in River of Colour-the title of his 13th book and an exhibition originating at Chicago's Art Institute-does simply appear "colourful" in the way we associate with the National Geographic, where some of his photographs have appeared. But then Singh's inventive compositions, which reinterpret the "decisive moment" methods of Cartier-Bresson, wash away our preconceptions in complex designs that appear both premeditated and spontaneous. Simultaneously, he juxtaposes modern and ancient India.
In one picture, a large satellite dish shares its floor with a prone worshipper at one of the god Shiva's largest temples, the Kapalisvara. On the Grand Trunk Road, steel-green motor scooters whiz by horse-drawn carts. In a museum, a cheap electric fan occupies center frame between two ancient statues of Shiva. The photographs are beautiful, not pretty, and too densely intelligent to serve as anyone's cloyingly sweet postcard from an exotic land.
Singh belongs to one of two schools of Indian art. One, centered in the west and Bombay, argues for an international style, while Singh's group, centered in Calcutta, takes inspiration from Indian pictoralist traditions. Singh acknowledged to me that a "complete Indianization" of his art is neither possible nor desirable; his themes are present in all cultures. However, he insists that underlying the Indian sense of colour is a crucial philosophic difference with contemporary Western art. Modernism and post-modernism, he says, share a dark soul - a view of life grounded in Christian original sin and anti-Christian nihilism. The Western artists' favourite colour (as any café patron knows) is black. In most of India, black is taboo.
Singh elaborates in his introductory essay to River of Colour: "T.S. Eliot, the high priest of the [modernist] movement, anticipated images that would appear in modernist photography in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock compares the evening sky to a patient upon a surgery table. Then the Polonius-like Prufrock goes on to sing of half-deserted streets, one-night cheap hotels, sawdust restaurants and the butt-ends of his days. It is as if Eliot had mapped out the territory of alienation for Robert Frank and other important American and European street photographers."
Frank's photographs are black-and-white and bleak. By contrast, Singh states, colour has "forever fired the mind of India," from the vibrantly coloured Moghul and Rajput paintings of antiquity to the streets and stores of Bombay. "The true Indian artist cannot ignore the blessing of colour that is written into the Indian idea of darshan - sacred sight - which we know from childhood. This idea is a way of seeing that encompasses the sensuality of touch and feel, human contact and intimacy…. Beauty, nature, humanism and spirituality should remain working wellsprings in the Indian photographer's armoury, in spite of the great danger of sentimentality that modernism attaches to these values. We have the same instinctive response to these values as we have to colour."
These values course through River of Colour. In contrast to the alienation and pessimism of Western art, Singh's photographs invite us to immerse ourselves in a kind of universal Ganges, that watery symbol of spirituality and intuition that has so long bathed India.
©2015 Kerry Tremain