WITH ITS unsexy silhouette inspired by England's classic Morris Oxford, the Ambassador automobile may be, next to the elephant, the oxen and other vanishing beasts of burden, the most easily recognizable -- not to mention the most versatile -- conveyance on the roads of the Indian subcontinent. Affectionately known as the "Amby," and with a lumpish body design that has remained largely unchanged since its introduction in 1948, the Ambassador, continuously in production by Hindustan Motors since 1957, is a virtually ubiquitous presence on the streets.
"Auto-Focus: Raghubir Singh's Way Into India," now on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, is a survey of the late Indian photographer's pictures incorporating the car. If the photos are any indication of its role in contemporary Indian life, it is so much more than just a ride.
At times used as a taxi, delivery truck for slaughtered chickens or shelter from sun and pouring rain -- even a rolling bedroom when the need arises -- the Ambassador is, in Singh's hands, a compositional device as well, a setting against which the artist's often teeming Indian streetscapes take place. Sometimes aiming his lens through an open door or catching the reflection of his countrymen in a well-placed sideview or rearview mirror, Singh uses the car as both architecture and artistic duck blind, a form of urban camouflage that enables him to shoot the world around him while blending invisibly into the background.
Interestingly, the greatest single irony about the show may be the fact that, in a country known for color -- so much so that Singh rejected the use of black-and-white film -- most of the Ambassadors sold (and therefore most of the Ambassadors in these pictures) are a bland white. The popularity of that paint finish, of course, can be explained by its association with purity in Eastern religions, but it also makes for a stark contrast to what is often a riot of hues blooming around it.
In the end, as the subtitle of this sharp little show implies, "Raghubir Singh's Way Into India" is less about car as subject matter or even car as framing device than car as portal to something quintessentially, ineffably, Indian. We are almost meant to look through the Ambassador, not at it -- its mirrors, reflective metal surfaces, windows and open doors acting as Lewis Carroll-like looking glasses that transport us into a parallel world inside the real one.
AUTO-FOCUS: RAGHUBIR SINGH'S WAY INTO INDIA -- Through Aug. 10 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-357-2700 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.asia.si.edu. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.
For the duration of the exhibition, an actual Ambassador automobile -- this one painted a deep burgundy -- will be parked in the museum's atrium, where clips from Bollywood films featuring the iconic car play on a nearby television monitor.