Arun Kumar Nalimela

Top 10 India in 10 iconic images

© Arun Kumar Nalimela

 “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

─── by Edward Clay, April 25, 2024
  • 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.

    street color photo of people in Kolkata, India by Billy Dinh
    © Billy Dinh

    1. Billy Dinh – “Our Everyday”. Kolkata,

    Billy Dinh‘s captivating depiction of a street scene in Kolkata was awarded the 1st prize in our People Award in December 2023 by judge Michael Yamashita. This compelling image, beautifully framed, is rich in detail, color, and movement, capturing the chaotic essence of Kolkata’s streets. The longer you look at it, the more compelling it becomes, particularly accentuated by the man in the center foreground, seemingly covered in soap, staring confused at the camera.

    © Raghubir Singh

    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.”

    black and white portrait photo of Gandhi by Margaret Bourke-White
    © Margaret Bourke-White

    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.

    black and white photo of a woman in india by Pablo Bartholmew
    © Pablo Bartholmew

    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.

    Photo of a mother and daughter taking a selfie in front of a lake by Jody Macdonald
    © Jody MacDonald

    5. Jody MacDonald – Woman and Young Girl by Lake. Jaipur, India

    Few contemporary figures embody the spirit of adventure and travel photography quite like Jody MacDonald. With rare intrepidity and considerable skill, she has dedicated her career to travelling the globe, capturing imagery that conveys its diverse beauty and humanity. Her depiction of a mother taking a selfie with her young daughter in Jaipur is typical of her work—a sensitive image that captures a tender moment of modern life juxtaposed with the historic buildings rising from the lake in the background.

    Read our full profile on Jody here.

    Black and White photograph by David Douglas Duncan - Imperial Secretariat Library division, India, 1947
    © David Douglas Duncan

    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.

    color photo by Mary Ellen Mark
    © Mary Ellen Mark

    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.

    color photo of ceremony in Dehugaon, India by Arun Kumar Nalimela
    © Arun Kumar Nalimela

    8. Arun Kumar Nalimela – “In The Name Of God”

    India is renowned for its diversity of religious festivals that serve as pillars of unity and faith, bringing people together in celebration. In an era marked by increasing disconnection, these festivals serve as potent reminders of communal joy, bonding individuals through shared beliefs and reviving the essence of celebration and togetherness. This stunning photograph, taken by Arun Kumar Nalimela during the Wari Festival in Dehugaon, India in 2023, is extraordinary. Thanks to the aerial perspective and the skillful use of a slow shutter speed, the white-clad worshippers form a mesmerizing whirlwind of bodies as they move around the shrine, symbolizing the profound connection and collective spirit that characterizes such festivities.

    color portrait photo of little boy in Varanasi, India by Sergio Volani
    © Sergio Volani

    9. Sergio Volani – “Makeup for Shiva”, Varanasi

    This poignant image by Italian photographer Sergio Volani portrays a young boy in Varanasi, India, who dresses up as the god Shiva every day to collect donations such as food or money. Varanasi is revered as one of India’s most sacred cities, believed to have been founded by Shiva himself. The waters of the Ganges here are believed to possess the power to cleanse mortal sins, making it a popular pilgrimage site.

    It’s not uncommon here for impoverished children to dress up as deities to seek alms. This photograph, captured from close quarters, effectively conveys the melancholy in the child’s eyes and, combined with the striking blue makeup, creates a sad yet beautiful image that speaks to the poverty which plagues to many in India.

    black and white portrait photo of woman by Dayanita Singh
    © Dayanita Singh

    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


    Updated Jan 2024