“To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photography was introduced to India in the 1840s while the country was under British Colonial rule. Many British photographers were eager to travel from the bleak, grey, rain-washed island to capture India’s vibrant palette, even before the advent of color photography.
It is a country that has long proven fertile ground for photographers, over the years, attracting some of the most iconic names from across the globe and birthing many others. The images they captured, display the country’s changing physiognomy through the ages, and together, convey its distinct, captivating essence.
1. Henri Cartier-Bresson – Refugees exercising, Punjab, Kurukshetra, 1947
Cartier-Bresson’s work in India started in 1947, a year which would prove a decisive moment for the subcontinent and the photographer’s career alike.
1947 was the year of Indian independence and the founding of Pakistan. The following year Cartier-Bresson took the photographs of Mahatma Gandhi’s final hours and the events following his assassination. His publication India in Full Frame covers much of his reportage from the East with a more political than aesthetic focus. This photo captures a moment of lightness in a place where little hope is found, and is a prime example of Cartier-Bresson’s ability to subvert the constraints of situation and place. His love letter to India lasted over 40 years and is some of the country’s most defining work.
2. Raghubir Singh – Women huddled against the Monsoon Rains, Bihar, 1967
Pioneer of colour street photography, Raghubir Singh’s work with slide film recorded the country’s dense milieu in pulsating and opulent tones. Singh focussed on all the major iconographic themes that characterise India: from monsoon season to religion, the chaos of the streets and the residues of colonialism.
This photo of women huddling together during the monsoon rains is one of Singh’s most famous works. The image announces Singh’s lifelong preoccupation with the intertwining themes of climate, land and tradition. His distinct photographic style belongs, in his words, “on the Ganges side of modernism.”
3. Margaret Bourke-White – Gandhi and Spinning Wheel, Pune, 1946
Whilst Gandhi was being held as a prisoner at Yeravda prison in Pune, from 1932 to 1933, the nationalist leader would encourage his countrymen to make their own homespun cloth instead of buying British goods. Margaret Bourke-White, who had been assigned to photograph Gandhi’s compound for an article on India’s leaders, had to learn how to spin a charkha before being allowed to sit with Gandhi to record his portrait. Her photo of Gandhi reading the newspaper alongside his spinning wheel posthumously became a symbol of Gandhi’s peaceful nature- a civil-disobedience crusader with a pacifist message.
4. Pablo Bartholomew – Morphine Addict, Bombay, 1976
Bartholomew, who won the World Press Photo award in 1976 for an incredibly intimate and empathetic series on morphine addicts which he made when he was only 20 years old, has been photographing themes of conflict and tradition in society for decades. To finance his documentary projects he worked as a still photographer in Mumbai and Calcutta film studios. In 2013, Bartholomew was awarded the highly prestigious Padma Shri Award by the Indian government, one of the country’s highest accolades for artistic merit.
5. Harry Gruyaert- Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, 1976
“There is no story. It’s just a question of shapes and light”
With the deftness of a painter, Harry Gruyaert has always been able to pick out commonly overlooked details of everyday life and render them into unique canvases which cumulatively form complex tableaus. Were it not for the lone figure in the left hand corner, this could almost be a painting by one of the cubists, and the doorway, a Picasso. Gruyaert’s unique grasp of colour is very much at its peak in India.
6. David Douglas Duncan – Imperial Secretariat Library division, 1947
Cyril Radcliffe, leader of the Indian/ Pakistan partition whose strategy to divide the Hindu and Muslim landscapes of the countries by drawing a simple line on a map failed to realise that the demarcation might travel through densely populated areas or even sometimes, through people’s houses. This photo perfectly encapsulates the absurdities of the partition, led by a commission of men whose head was a British lawyer who had never traveled to India.
The absurd ratios of division set by the Partition committee involved sending all tables from one country into the other and all chairs the opposite way. India would take the drums from police bands and flutes would go to Pakistan. Assets were divided almost at random, by the flip of a coin and there were even tales that the volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica were divided, with neither having a complete set or that dictionaries were ripped apart equally. This photo captures the over-simplification of a complex moment in India’s history- the perfect visual metaphor.
7. Mary Ellen Mark – Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, 1978
Mary Ellen Mark arrived at the Altamont and Falkland roads districts of India to portray the harsher corners of the Bombay area. Though Mark was left heavily disturbed by scenes she witnessed of street-gangs, runaway children and psychiatric patients, she kept returning to the districts despite her sadness. Frequented by lower class citizens since the colonial days, the area remains an epicentre of abuse and sex-trafficking with a labyrinthine network of brothels, warrens, and cages. Despite being made to feel unwelcome by the inhabitants she persevered and in 1978 stayed in the district for two months, befriending and photographing prostitutes, pimps and clients alike.
8. Raghu Rai – Delhi-Mumbai train, 1982
Raghu Rai was the protege of Henri Cartier-Bresson, spotted for his remarkable eye and unique insider’s perspective on India at an exhibition he held in Paris in 1971. Rai started shooting at 23 and became the chief photographer for The Statesman in India. In 1977 he became a Magnum Associate. Named ‘Padmashree’ for his photography in 1971, the highest civilian award in India, Rai’s work reflects and justifies the intense complexities of an India in flux. This iconic image reminds us of Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment- a high-speed train passes a cyclist at just the right moment, whilst a man adeptly juggles a tray of mugs, unphased by the precarious nature of his activity.
9. Steve McCurry – A mother and child during monsoon season, 1993
For six months, Steve McCurry followed the path of the monsoon from Southeast Asia to Northern Australia in an examination on how people cope with the often destructive weather phenomenon. McCurry’s unique visual essay is less about the monsoon itself, and more about the complexities of its effects on the people who experience it.
In this fortuitous moment McCurry catches a glimpse of a mother asking for alms, child on hip, as he passes by in the back of a car. The humidity steaming the glass of the window only intensifies the bright red of the mother’s gown, contrasting the stark and gloomy colours of the rest of the setting. McCurry’s unique ability to breathe beauty and art into his reportage is unmatched.
10. Dayanita Singh – Go Away Closer, 2013
Singh’s India is one torn between tradition and progress, between reality and dreams. With a unique ability to express these abstract concepts she has established a personal connection between her own experience and the collective emotional changes spurred on by the loss of traditions in the face of globalization and technological advancement. Embodied by the paradox in the title, Go Away Closer is a series about presence and absence, navigated delicately by considering the emotions of her subjects.
“Time spent in India has an extraordinary effect on one.
It acts as a barrier that makes the rest of the world seem unreal.” – Tahir Shah
All images © their respective owners