Decentring the ‘Decisive Moment’ in India's Post-Independence Photography

Manila Castoro

Palavras-chave: Decisive Moment; Raghubir Singh; Post-independence Photography; Indian darshan; Rasa Theory

Participação: on-line

The Decisive Moment, which is the visual recognition of the instant in which the significance of an event combines in meaningful forms, which confers to that event its “proper expression”, has been a bedrock in photography since it was conceptualised by Cartier-Bresson in 1952. Strongly tied to epistemological, symbolical, and cognitive forces that spring in part from Western thought and combine with aesthetic and photographic preoccupations which are intrinsically modern (Clair 2003, Galassi 2010), the concept has circulated widely and has had a special impact on the work of photographers documenting everyday life in the city environment. This paper considers the mode through which the Decisive Moment has been reconsidered and reframed in India's post-independence photography.

A modern impetus in the arts was crucial for the elaboration and affirmation of a post-independence Indian identity. In the early decades that followed the liberation from colonial rule in 1947, some photographers explored Western trends to reflect and express the Indian cultural context, as well as establish an active dialogue with global modernity. Within the burgeoning photography scene of the early 1960s, Cartier-Bresson’s photography and his idea of the Decisive Moment resounded in the work of some emergent Indian photographers. Raghubir Singh was the most representative. Singh consistently and wittingly complicated the concept of the Decisive Moment in his colour photographs of urban India. The paper advances that in Singh’s photography the conceptions lying at the basis of the Decisive Moment have not been passively absorbed, in a sort of “derivative” exercise (Mitter 2008). On the contrary, though preserving some of its elements, Singh lucidly reorganised the Decisive Moment by means of two traditional Indian models of aesthetic appreciation and visual perception: the classical aesthetics theory of Rasa and the concept of darshan.

The theory of Rasa, in which colour and emotions are strictly bonded, will be critical to understanding Singh’s urge to liberate the photographic representation of India’s urban reality from the Western dominance of black and white, and reclaim colour as one of the primary bearers of the expressive intensity of the Decisive Moment. Moreover, Singh’s rejection of the standard oculocentric model of perception that defines the Decisive Moment, in which the eye is the privileged organ for the acquisition of knowledge and experience, appears also very important. In his search for the right moment, Singh advocates the Indian darshan, a form of ‘haptic visuality’ in which a visual and tactile exchange occurs between the photographer and the object/event observed (Marks 2000, Pinney 2004). The Decisive Moment is the crucial instant of this exchange, originating from the twofold sensorial trade between the photographer and reality.

The paper will thus argue that decentring the Decisive Moment by means of Indian aesthetic and visual modes, is the strategy employed by Singh not only to develop a personal model of expression, but also to valorise India’s post-independence identity, participating in the larger discourse of modernity advanced by Indian photographers in those years.


Clair, Jean. “Kairos: The Idea of the Decisive Moment in the Work of Cartier-Bresson.” In Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Man, the Image and the World. A Retrospective, by Arbaizar, Philippe, Jean Clair, Robert Delpire and Peter Galassi, 47-54. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Galassi, Peter. Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010.
Marks, U. Laura. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2000.
Mitter, Partha. “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery.” Art Bulletin 90, no. 4 (2008): 531-548.
Pinney, Christopher. ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.


Manila Castoro is an art historian and Visiting Lecturer in History and Theory of Photography at the University of Gloucestershire (UK). After graduating in History of Contemporary Art at the University of Bologna, Manila pursued a PhD in History and Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent (UK). Subsequently, she worked as a Research Associate and Associate Lecturer at the same university. Manila’s relevant areas of research are the aesthetic and cultural relationship between photographers and the city, issues and themes in modern and contemporary urban experience and urban representation, and the postcolonial city. Her current research focuses on the photographic representation of urban experience in postcolonial India. Manila has presented her research in many international venues such as the University of California Berkeley, École Normale Supérieure, Bibliotheca Hertziana - Max Planck Institute for Art History, and has published widely on photography and the city (Verlag, Routledge, McFarland).