Auto*Focus: Raghubir Singh’s Way into India 

Media only: Brenda Kean Tabor: 202.357.4880 ext. 319
Barbara Kram: 202.357.4880 ext. 219
Public only: 202.357.2700
Media preview: Tuesday, March, 9 a.m. Call 202.357.4880 ext. 218 to attend.
Photographer Raghubir Singh, who is celebrated for his visual essays on India and his role as a pioneer of color photography, was completing what became his last pictorial cycle, “A Way into India,” when he died unexpectedly in 1999. Between March 8 and Aug. 10, the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will present “Auto*Focus: Raghubir’s Singh’s Way into India” featuring 48 of these vibrantly colorful photographs.

This cycle in effect constitutes a retrospective of Singh’s career, for it focuses upon the Ambassador car, the model of car in which Singh traveled as he documented the Indian landscape over a 30 year period. From scenes of Kashmir in the Himalayas to Tamil Nadu in the south, all in some way include the Ambassador car—a vehicle so ubiquitous as to be considered an emblem of post Independence India. First manufactured by Hindustan Motors in 1957, the exterior of the Ambassador remains, to this day, reminiscent of the 1950s British Morris sedan. As shiny diplomatic limousine, family car or taxi, its distinctive silhouette is seen in pristine or dilapidated form throughout India.

“Throughout this series of photographs,” says curator Debra Diamond, “Singh used the Ambassador car to see, scale and order the world around him. The car plays a role in everyday narratives—an altercation in traffic, the transporting of chickens, a visit to the Red Fort in Delhi, a family outing, a driver’s nap. In some images, Singh cleverly echoes the Ambassador’s curves in the surrounding environment to transform the car into a flower-adorned shrine or its open hood into a triumphal arch. Singh not only uses the car as subject, but also uses the car as a camera, a box with windows and mirrors that offer opportunities for framing and reflecting and transforming the landscape.”

Born in Jaipur, Rajasthan in 1942, Raghubir Singh lived abroad for most of his adult life but chose as his subject the unique geographical culture of India, which he described as “an environment in which people, animals, religion, tradition, myth, manners, history and climate are inseparable from one another and from the vast land of rivers, mountains, plains and plateaus.” While he drew inspiration from the work of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and especially Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment, Singh worked in color because he believed it was impossible to express India’s particular beauty in black and white. “Above all,” Singh wrote, “it is Indian life, rooted in our geographical environment, that interests me most—a life which is endowed with every shade of color from the peacock’s plume to the black of the elephant to the weathered landscape of the farmer’s face.”

Singh attributed his sense of color to his native Rajasthan, which he described as “a land of color ranging from the near monochromes of sand to costumes that match the brightest stained glass in the churches of Europe. There,” he said, “I have admired the traditional talent of the village people in handling a variety of vibrant hues with the ease that comes through centuries of subconscious practice. These colors are not superfluous or exotic elements, but an intrinsic part of the hard, everyday life.”

This exhibition is supported by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler galleries and the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment.

A fully illustrated catalog titled A Way into India is available in the Sackler gift shop. The photographs, a gift of the estate of Raghubir Singh, will become part of the Sackler gallery’s permanent collection.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries’ Web site at

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