Out of Focus

What Raghubir Singh did not see

01 February 2018
Subhas Chandra Bose Statue, Calcutta, West Bengal, 1986

THE SCENE TAKES PLACE IN RAJASTHAN, sometime in the 1970s. A photographer passing through the desert comes upon a well. From a distance it appears romantic, the centre of rural life. But up close he finds the well nearly dry, which is a problem for the local peasants, who have no other source of water. They have other problems too, such as finding food. A drought seems to have ruined their annual crop. And their livestock, too expensive to feed, has been sent away. “I have eaten only a bit of gruel today,” a peasant tells the photographer.

Raghubir Singh recalls this episode in the introduction to his fourth photo-book Rajasthan, India’s Enchanted Land (1981). He offers the following by way of conclusion:

In Rajasthan, there are thousands of villages like Galawas, and hundreds of others which are worse off. My aim in writing about the villages is not simply to show its wretchedness. I find it futile to add to the volumes written on the poor in India. But it is important to point out that in spite of their poverty, the peasants of Rajasthan have spun out a wealth of folk culture. Their exuberance, their vitality, their ability to laugh, to sing and dance, interwoven into the rich fabric of their culture, makes them stand out ... Even the clothes they wear, those bright and vivid fabrics, are a symbol of their colorful spirits.

This passage veers away from one kind of local colour, only to embrace another. The argument can be tracked in two movements. Singh first distances himself from a strand of concerned realism—the sort you might associate with the journalist P Sainath—because adding to it would be reductive and futile. His reasoning, one presumes (he does not articulate it), is that such writing reduces people to their abjection. Singh prefers that we celebrate their “vitality.” Peasants, he argues, “stand out” because of the “rich fabric of their culture” (and also because of their fabrics). This sounds nice enough until you reverse the equation. Would they not stand out if they did not sing and dance? And would Singh have lost interest if their clothes were plainer?

Slum Dweller, Dharavi, Bombay, Maharashtra, 1990

Ratik Asokan is writer based in New York.

Keywords: photography VS Naipaul Photographer RK Narayan Raghubir Singh