Randhir Singh’s photograph Sector 5 Saket captures a ubiquitous scene in South Asia: the neighborhood cricket match. A stack of bricks stand in for wickets, field boundaries are demarcated by random objects, and the players’ attire is a mismatched cacophony of color. However, the protagonist of Singh’s photograph is one of the match’s onlookers: the local water tower.

It’s an otherworldly structure – monumental and grimy; a bizarre hybrid of a hovering spaceship and a fluted temple column. Emerging from behind a dilapidated wall, the tower is flanked by lush green trees and soars into a clear, almost white, sky. The people, the wall, and the trees are all rendered diminutive in the presence of the looming industrial structure.

Sector 5 Saket is the first of 27 water tower portraits Singh has created to date. The ongoing series is an ode to large format photography, shooting with film, and one of Delhi’s oft overlooked and soon to be redundant monuments of urban planning. Kajal spoke with Singh about the impetus behind this architectural portrait and the series that it spawned.

Randhir Singh, Sector 5 Saket, 2015, Pigment Print, Edition of 7.

Kajal: Why water towers?

Randhir Singh: I’m an architect by training. When I was a student [at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York], my thesis project ended up being set in India. I was doing a lot of research into the city of New Delhi at the time and referencing street maps of the city. I remember noticing that the maps showed the locations of water towers. It seemed to be such an odd thing to include on a map. Monuments, streets, hospitals, and so on make sense. Water towers just struck me as an odd addition.

Fast forward to 2013 – we moved from New York, to Delhi. I was born in Delhi but I’ve lived outside India for most of my life. I was thinking about how to explore the city in different ways. And I found myself passing one of these water towers every day on my drive from my house to my studio. It reminded me of my thesis project and the fact that these towers were specifically located on maps, and I thought: This might be a nice way to start exploring the city.

So that’s what I started doing. I’d refer to the map, cross reference it against a satellite view, like a Google Earth image, and then I would go out and find that water tower and photograph it. It did end up being a unique way to explore different parts of the city. To go to places that I wouldn’t ever go to otherwise.

Can you tell me more about this image?

I made this one in 2015, and it’s actually the first water tower I photographed. It just kind of sat there for a while. I mean, it stayed in my mind for long enough that I thought: maybe I should make some more.

In this instance, I was actually in this neighborhood in Sector 5 Saket, in South Delhi. The neighborhood’s come up recently, I’d say in the last 20 or 30 years. There’s a lot of government housing around there but some really big shopping malls have opened up in the same area. This particular water tower was in a government housing colony. These colonies are planned neighborhoods. You have four story apartment buildings. You’ll always have a school, there’ll be a little shopping arcade, there’ll be a playground, and so on. I was in the neighborhood photographing the housing and I walked past the water tower. It was approaching dusk and I saw these kids playing cricket and I thought “This is kind of nice.” So I set up my camera and just waited for a while for the right moment. I ended up walking up and down a lot before that to see what the angles were, what I liked and I really just wanted to put the tower right in the middle. I didn’t want to do anything complicated with it. I didn’t want to get cute; I was drawn to what was happening around me, and just looking at it. I waited until all these guys playing cricket stopped staring at me. It was an interesting sight. It’s a big camera, a big tripod, so I had to wait till they went back to their game – which wasn’t too long actually. And I made my photograph.

You didn’t stage the cricket players or direct them in any way?

No. I don’t tell people what to do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. But I felt strongly at the time when I was making these photographs that I shouldn’t tell people what to do or position them or anything like that. It was literally just me waiting around until it felt right and then I made my picture.

Randhir Singh, Press Colony, 2016, Pigment Print, Edition of 7.

When describing this series, you’ve mentioned the influence of the New Topographics movement, especially the work of Hilla and Bernd Becher who also photographed water towers among other industrial structures. The subject matter, water towers, is shared but the images themselves couldn’t be further apart. The Bechers’ images were black and white tight portraits of water towers, reminiscent of mugshots in their minimalism and composition. Your towers inhabit colorful worlds, they are surrounded by vast expanses of negative space and almost always have trees and people around them – which telegraphs the scale of these structures but also sort of humanizes them; they look like benevolent giants or sentries towering above their flock. Can you speak more to these differences?

The kinds of images they were making, and what they were trying to get at with their photographs is quite different from what I’m doing. I didn’t try to get too close or crop it down too much. I’m looking for what’s happening in the foreground and the background, to see what kind of relationships I can show. I was very interested in what was happening around the water tower as much as the object itself. I wanted to talk about the landscape as well, rather than just the object itself functioning as this quite decorative marker. These towers are all over Delhi. Most people just ignore them, you’ll drive by hundreds of them and not really look at them or think about them.

I was interested in the whole nature of the water tower as a piece of hydraulic engineering. Why do we have water towers? Their purpose is to supply water to multiple houses with one pump. You can have one pump, that runs on electricity, that pumps water up to the top of the tower, and then gravity feeds water to all the houses around it. So where electricity is precious, where not everyone has it and you get lengthy power cuts, the only way to get pressurized water is through water towers. There’s a mathematical relationship between the height of the water tower, to the height of the apartment buildings and houses that it’s feeding.

In some of these housing colonies, especially these government social housing colonies, where I was finding these water towers, I was intrigued by the idea of the water tower functioning as a kind of village well. That’s where the whole village, the colony, gets their water. I liked the democracy of it, the lack of hierarchy. India’s such a stratified society, between religion and caste and economics and cultural groups. I saw the water tower functioning as an equalizer, everybody is getting the same water everywhere. But that’s actually not the case. I found out that “more important people” or senior figures in the government, in that colony, will have a pipe feeding their homes that’s a little bit higher up!

Randhir Singh, Police Colony, 2016, Pigment Print, Edition of 7.

It’s difficult to separate the process from the photograph. One cannot exist without the other so every photograph is impacted by the process you follow to make it.

The greenery is almost a secondary character in this series. Are you purposefully using nature as a framing device? 

Yes, I am. In a lot of the photographs in this series I’ve tried to move and work with the camera in different ways so that you can see the water coming down and see how it connects down to the ground plane. In Sector 5 Saket, I’ve been barred by that wall, but you get a sense of how it’s touching down. In some of the other pictures it’s clearer and you can see exactly how it sits on the ground. And there’s one or two photographs where it’s completely obscured, where you don’t see at all how it’s coming down. It just floats up there like a flying saucer.

Randhir Singh, Udham Singh Park I, 2016, Pigment Print, edition of 7.

Randhir Singh, RBI Officers Colony, 2016, Pigment Print, edition of 7.

Given your background, can you speak to the architecture of these towers? Were they all designed by the same person? Around the same time? 

You know I’ve tried to look into it and there’s nothing. Absolutely nothing on the people who designed these. There’s only one water tower where I know that there was an architect responsible: The water tower at Jawaharlal Nehru University designed by CP Kukreja. He designed all the buildings on campus and designed the water tower as well. All the others were designed by a government authority, the Central Public Works Division (CPWD) or the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).  You’d imagine in some sort of government authority it would be easier to just have them be uniform but it’s just not the case. They don’t follow any standard, the water towers are all different, architecturally.  It’s very curious.

I found that the towers in Noida follow a template of sorts, they look related, but otherwise, across Delhi, they are all different! From what I can tell the towers were built at the same time as the housing colonies so they’re all being built at different times as the city has grown. A lot of them are non-functional now. I’ve learnt as I’ve been photographing them that Delhi is actually a seismic zone so it’s not safe to have a few thousand gallons of water perched up on a tower like that so the city has been slowly taking them down and replacing them with underground tanks. Delhi’s electricity supply is much better and much more regular now so people can have pumps in their homes and pump water regularly without relying on the local water tower.

Randhir Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2016, Pigment Print, edition of 7.

Randhir Singh, NOIDA Sector 12, 2016, Pigment Print, edition of 7.

…architecture is more and more pliable. Buildings can be stretched and pulled and compressed and shaped and molded in different ways. By the decisions that I make with the composition, the lens, and the film.

This photograph, this whole series actually, is shot on film. So when you say you “took your picture” you really mean a singular photograph?

Yes. I was usually just going and making one picture. Sometimes two or three pictures a day at most. If I were to do it again, I would probably make more than one at a time. I didn’t have a lot of film. So I was being very careful about what and how I photographed. It was quite restrained in that sense.

Why film?

It’s the process of working with film. The slowness of it. The thought that you put into each exposure. It is completely manual, there’s no auto anything. I have to figure out the framing, I have to figure out the exposure, the depth of field, all these things have to be thought through. There’s all these calculations, not very difficult calculations, but there are relationships between all these different elements that you have to figure out. All of that means that you are spending time thinking and relating to what’s happening in front of you.

And the view camera, if you know how it works: you have the lens in front, and you compose and focus on a piece of frosted glass with the image appearing upside down and flipped. So what you see on the ground glass is actually quite abstracted from what you are seeing in front of you. Seeing that inverted image on the ground glass taps into a different part of your brain; it’s abstracted and it doesn’t look like reality in front of you. This abstraction happens at the same time as you go into this dark cloth, and it’s just you connected to the camera…it’s a really nice moment. It’s not a single moment, because it takes quite a while but it’s a nice period of time to spend.

When you’re working with a view camera there is no feedback. You don’t get to see the picture once you’ve made it. And that leads to, I think, an experience where you’re really very present in the moment, in what you are doing over there. There’s a lot of looking at what you are photographing, looking at the building, looking at the scene of a building, the landscape, whatever it is, the scene in front of you, rather than looking at a small screen. That focus and the slowness of it all is something that really appeals to me.

Singh’s sketch of Sector 5 Saket.

My process is actually even slower than what I’ve described so far. I shoot the film and I keep it in my fridge until I make a trip back to New York where I get them developed. So there’s a very long lag. It’s the most opposite of instant gratification as you possibly can get, because I don’t see what’s on the film until a few months or even a year or so later. When I’m photographing, I make little sketches of each frame. So I have a drawing of what the picture will end up being. They’re not very good drawings, but it’s just enough that I remember what I was doing.

I shoot digital as well, a lot of the commercial work I do is all shot on digital. There are many, many benefits to shooting digital – I’m not a Luddite or something – I don’t think one’s better than the other. I just appreciate what film does and what shooting with large format does.

Does it do something to the image or just the process? Or does the process create a different image? 

It’s difficult to separate the process from the photograph. One cannot exist without the other so every photograph is impacted by the process you follow to make it.

It’s interesting to me that even though you’ve put on a new hat so to speak: photographer, you have stayed true to your subject: architecture. Can you speak more about this evolution? 

My foray into photography has come through shooting with a large format camera; shooting 4×5. I worked as an architect in New York for 15 years, I moved to the city straight after college. While I was working, I was taking classes at ICP [The International Center of Photography]. It was very much me trying to figure out what was interesting to me and what kind of photography I wanted to do. I started with street photography classes, I did landscape and portraiture and all sorts of stuff. It was really, really interesting, but a lot of it…I just didn’t enjoy the process. I like to be very deliberate about what I’m doing. My first love, I guess, is architecture. I really am only interested in shooting architecture.

I took a class on using a 4×5 camera and that really broadened my horizons in a lot of different ways. Just what the large format camera allows you to do, other cameras don’t. It’s very specific about what you can do. I’ve been working with architecture now for almost 10 years, and I’ve realized that architecture is more and more pliable. Buildings can be stretched and pulled and compressed and shaped and molded in different ways. By the decisions that I make with the composition, the lens, and the film. 

Installation view of Randhir Singh’s Water Towers 2015-2016 from the exhibition Body Building at Ishara Art Foundation, Dubai, 2019.

All images courtesy of the artist.