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Originally based on the British Morris Oxford series III model, the car cost a princely Rs 14,000 in the late 1950s. In course of time, it became the 'King of Indian Roads’, thanks to its sturdy build, roomy interiors and sound suspension ideally suited to Indian potholed roads. A choice of many, it became a symbol of power and authority, particularly of politicians and bureaucrats.
Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of Autocar India, recalls how a bony-white Ambassador with tinted windows and flashing red roof-light got more gates opened than even a Mercedes. "For much of independent India’s history when the economy was closed to foreign manufacturers, the joke was you could buy any car in India so long as it was an Ambassador!” Over time, the car also became butt of many jokes. Eminent writer Khushwant Singh, a proud owner of an 'Amby’, once said: "Everything but the horn on this car makes noise.”
With competition setting in, the order-book for Ambassadors began to flounder. The once-unblemished automobile became creaky, outmoded, imperfect, and ungainly. Annual sales declined, and by 2013, it was down to about 2000 cars. In 2014, it went out of production.
Iconic car, iconic images
If there was one artist who retained a continuing fascination for the iconic Amby, it was the late Raghubir Singh (1942-99). The ace photographer with an international reputation criss-crossed the country and compiled a book of images using the car as the common thread. "As I journeyed all over India, I came to understand that if one thing can be singled out to stand for the past 50 years of India... it has to be the Ambassador.”
Singh’s picture book, A Way Into India (2002), published three years after his death, captured the sights, sounds and colours of the country through striking images. The book carried a foreword by the American conceptual artist, John Baldessari, who was awestruck by Singh’s ingenious way of seeing through the Ambassador car. The book received favourable reviews. "Singh has captured the Ambassador in the kind of way only he was capable of,” wrote Dilip Bobb (India Today / May 27, 2002).
"He has travelled across the country and used the car as a camera, the windows providing the frame, capturing the most enduring images of India, occasionally with the windshield as viewfinder... The cover shot, an old man resting against a garish red Ambassador with a section of the Kumbh Mela in the background, is an evocative example of Singh’s genius, his ability to focus on the mundane and make it a metaphor for something larger, something uniquely Indian. Just like the Ambassador.”
Raghubir Singh was at the pinnacle of his career when he suddenly died at the age of 56. By then he was highly acclaimed both in the West and the subcontinent. The Jaipur-born documentary photographer was actually a high-school dropout and self-taught in his art. His first break came in the mid-1960s when Life magazine published eight pages of his photographs of a student unrest.
In a fascinating career which followed, Singh published a dozen monographs; taught at Columbia University, Cooper Union, and the School of Visual Arts in New York; held many solo exhibitions in India and abroad; and was featured by every major photographic journal including Time, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. He was perhaps the first to put Indian photography on the world map in the 1970s, and among those who introduced the concept of large format books on photography in the country.
Singh, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 1983, chronicled all aspects of Indian life: the hustle and bustle of modern cities; fairs and festivals; roadside bazaars; grand colonial offices and mansions; and mundane and simple life of common people. India was always a metaphor for him; and his pictures revealed an Indian way of seeing the rich palette of India’s landscape and peoples. "Wherever I have dived and come up for air, the breath I take is deeply Indian because all my working life I have photographed my country. In doing so, I have been carried by the flow of the inner river of India’s life and culture.”
Colour became inseparable from content in Singh’s work. Importantly, he took it up at a time when colour photography was frowned upon by the international community. For him, colour was key to understanding Indian culture; and colour was the fountain not of new styles and ideas, but of the continuum of life itself. "Singh’s employment of colour should make some painters envious and his shifts in space call to mind Velazquez,” wrote Baldessari.
A self-confessed 'semi-nomad’, Singh travelled widely. He was well read in both western and Indian art history, literature and culture. He developed close relationships with a vast array of artists and intellectuals around the world including Satyajit Ray (who wrote an introduction to his book on Rajasthan in 1981); V S Naipaul (who conducted a dialogue with him for his book on Bombay in 1994); and R K Narayan (who scripted a generous preface to his book on Tamil Nadu in 1997).
On his part, Singh paid tribute to those who influenced him. "I have looked at the densely Indian characters of R K Narayan... at the acute analysis of today’s India in the prose of V S Naipaul, and of yesterday’s India in the prose of Nirad Choudhuri,” he said. "I have looked at the pictorialism and bazaar energy of Salman Rushdie’s fiction... at the Thames-side pictorialism pitched by Anish Kapoor... I put within my frame the ancient sites, the crossings, the confluences of rivers... the big and small roads, the big and small cities... And I put within my framelines a sense of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of