Raghubir Singh – A Way into India
Couple of years ago, when I was working on my new series, I was roaming around the residential area called AECS layout in Bangalore. Since it is a newly developed middle class residential area, it didn’t have much space for parking in most of its houses. The cars were parked in front of the houses, covered in polythene or brown rugged clothes like a household item. This isn’t something new to witness in India. From my childhood, I have seen many house hold items covered up in the same fashion. A TV that has been kept unwrapped except for the display area, even a wooden box with the doors to open the TV screen, a car not removed of its polythene sheets on the seat cover and even some custom made plastic covers for items like refrigerator, grinder, mixer etc. It’s a symbol of middle class mindset to keep things as far as or even more than its life time.
I can understand the reason behind it, since I am also from a middle class family, for whom it takes so much of an effort to afford an electronic system or a car. This must have been a dream of their parents for years and might have costed few years of their savings to acquire it. This is what I felt when I looked at the cars. It’s a symbol of a growing nation, where the first generation of the family buying a small house without parking, a small hatch back car that comes with greater mileage and accommodates a nuclear family, and their intention to safeguard those cars from fading of the paints in the scorching sun or a scratch from the trespassers.
In that way, we can count it as a metaphor for the 21st century India. Urban nuclear families, first generation graduates and MNC employees who can afford to fulfill their life time dreams of possessing a car and a home.
All these changes happened within the last decade. What would have been the metaphor of the early 90’s then? In a country that is not a new born democratic? After forty plus years of freedom and after all the hopes of idealistic life has been withered? Where the hopes of the citizens has been looted by its rulers and were struggling to get even a job? Where the rich and power circle people living an elite life and the middle class are dreaming of a job, mostly a government job to hang on to and are ready to pay their father’s entire life’s savings to acquire a job?
That’s what Raghubir Singh captures in his book, ‘The way into India.’
Even before the Preface page, we get to see two photographs. One is a portrait of a man sitting inside the Ambassador. It doesn’t mention whose portrait it is, in fact it doesn’t need to. The second photograph is the image of an Ambassador and a mechanic trying to fix it, painted on a wall. These pictures say that this book is not a catalog of Ambassadors. It’s like adding a disclaimer to a story based on real life saying that “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.”
It is the portrait of the common man and his country. Pictorial representation of confused, directionless drivers of the country and Singh is using the Ambassador as a metaphor to interrogate the situation.
But why an Ambassador? Since it’s the first country made car in India, it’s an achievement for the country in a way, and almost has the same age of our freedom. Often the Amby is referred as the elephant which is also a metaphor for the country. Since it has the same age of freedom, it gives us the perspective of an onlooker who has traveled the same distance and wondering is this worth it and are we going in right direction?
Hence the Amby becomes the symbol of forty years of the country’s existence and evolution. For me, the book looks as if someone who had fought for us during the freedom fights is curating a walk around the country. Then this is how he would have looked at the country during the walk, “Have I spent my days for something worthwhile? What are you guys up to?” We get a feeling as though a man of 53 years old comes down the country to assess the growth after the freedom like a silent evaluator.
That’s what Singh does with his camera, smiling, jeering and sighing at the country. Each picture of the book is contemplating the country with the metaphor of Ambassador, against the old monuments, people with the traditional wear, in one picture it is juxtapositioned with the statue of a man who is riding on a horse, the traditional transportation of the country for thousands of years.
In one of the pictures, a young girl is curiously staring into the Ambassador that we are looking from. The young spirit of the country, looking at the 40 plus years old man, who is looking at the country with thousands of years of history.
It moves through various landscapes, various people, shows a drivers sleeping on the car itself, drying off their towels in the car window and at one point looks at the statue of Mahatma himself. Slowly we start to feel as if we are not looking at things directly, we are looking at things through somebody else’s eyes. A silent onlooker as old as the independent India. but the silent gaze makes us more inconvenient by its scrutiny.
It is not just looking through the Amby alone. We have been looking through the Ambassador and in some of the pictures we are able to look at the Ambassador itself. This can be a symbolic representation of looking at the old mammoth historical nation through the modern era, at times the historical country looks at the modern era critically and estimates it as well. That’s what makes this book deeper and interesting, like two mirrors facing each other and reflecting numerous layers.
In few pictures, we can see the Ambassador and also we see people fighting with the persons inside, striking the commuters. (Can you guess the commuters sitting in the car? Is it the tradition fighting with the modern or the old freedom fighter fella being sought by the men of the new era?) The Amby is parked in front of an old temple, in front of the colonial statues, in front of the monuments that are reflected in the mirror, shipped in a ferry, kids were playing around it and a monkey is trying to pluck its radio cable. In every moment said so far, the meaning of the onlooker (Amby) gets deeper and deeper.
The journey goes on till the sun sets over an old monumental city (Jaipur). Among its hundreds of people walking around, with the back drop of old buildings shone in the sunset, there goes an Ambassador alone, just like another soul of the country. And there ends Singh’s critical and poetic narration of the country.
On the cover we can see the infamous photograph of the red Ambassador. There stands a shamiana, like the old celebrated culture of the country that is slouching now, in front of it stands the Ambassador, the metaphor for the new era of the country. And in front of the Ambassador sits a man stooped and knelt in rugged clothes and doesn’t fit with the scenario. That’s what Singh has to say about the country at the end of the 20th century.
Apart from the literary and critical value, this book got more important value as a photo book. If my understanding is not wrong, this is the first photo book using a metaphor in the true sense in Indian photo book history. Most of the books published until then were mostly coffee table books or collection of photographs, including Raghubir Singh’s own books published yet.
It is a monumental work and leaping towards a newer direction, if only he has not left us as early as he did, the scenario of Indian photo books would have been much different.
Thanks to exposedtolight for uploading this video