In India it is quite difficult to make a good picture. There is so much of the ‘exotic’, the ‘orient’ to blur the vision. Choosing a subject can be a challenge, especially if you want to get beyond the over done travel poster view of the country. One of my consistent feelings of photographing the place is a sense of futility. The eye (at least mine, nurtured so dangerously by National Geographic) tends to automatically lock in on the classic subject matter of turbaned faces, bright saris and quaint ‘tradition meets modern world’ images. I have come close to despair on many occasions knowing that there is so much to see here but my eye simply reverts to ‘default’.
It was a relief to learn many years ago that my all time favorite photographer of India, Raghubir Singh, suffered a similar dis-ease. It was his pictures that I loved the most in those National Geographic stories of India. His photobooks have been on our family coffee-table since as early as I can remember. What a surprise to learn that he too struggled to break free of the ‘India-style’ of photography that he had played such a major role in defining. In the later years of his career (he died, sadly, in 1999) he published a book called ‘A Way into India’. The book was full of pictures of the Hindustan Ambassador car, as much an icon of India as Lord Shiva or the Taj Mahal. The photo above is from the cover of the book, and ranks as one of my favorite pictures of all time. Here’s a bit of Raghubir’s thoughts from the introduction to his book:
For thirty years I have travelled in hired Ambassador cars. As I journeyed all over India I came to understand that if one thing can be singled out to stand for the past fifty years of India and its closed economy,now open and moving into the new millennium, it has to be the Ambassador. I would say, the White Ambassador, as this is the most common colour on the Ambassadorized roads of India: white being the colour of piety and purity in the religions of Asia. Black is a taboo colour and so black ones are rare, although sometimes used by the wicked in Calcutta for instance, dacoits (members of armed gangs) have used them to help merge with the darkness of night.
It has become a metaphor for Mother India, for Independent India. Lizard-like, it has shed it’s colonial coating of Morris Oxford to don Hindustani colours. Unlike the Oxford don, tweed, thick-cut marmalade and an English breakfast of kippers and herring, it was never a British monument, but it is an Indian one. It is the Hindustan Ambassador.
The title of his book at first seems odd. But when you reflect, it was this humble ubiquitous automobile that became a way for Raghubir Singh to see India afresh.
I won’t deny that I’ve often tried to imitate the pictures of Raghubir Singh and tonight share two of my own Hindustan Ambassador shots. The first, I call Two Goondas. Goonda means thug and I detected a certain thugishness in these two Ambassadors waiting int he parking lot of a hotel in Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.
The second one is my homage to the famous black and yellow taxis of Calcutta, the home of the Ambassador. While other cars, many of them foreign, are pushing the Hindustan Ambassador off of Indian roads, in Calcutta, they still rule the roost.