Sunday, May 23, 2004

picture perfect

India: The Definitive Images, 1858 to the Present Photo editor Prashant Panjiar. Penguin Books India and Dorling Kindersley. $28.16

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in May 2004).

WHEN PENGUIN INDIA asked photojournalist Prashant Panjiar to edit India: The Definitive Images, 1858 to the Present, a coffee-table book he came to see as a "visual history" of the country, Panjiar did not simply pull out his collection or pick the brains of other shutterbugs for inspiration. Instead, he talked to a cross-section of photographers, writers, journalists, friends and acquaintances, coaxing them to recall images and explain the meaning they held for them.

"It struck me that it was important to investigate which photographic images the average Indian knew best," he writes in an explanatory note. "Could we, by studying these images, arrive at some understanding of our nation?"

The answer to that question, at least in the form of this collection, must be yes and no. India is a schizophrenic country--one of "too many people living too close to each other," as Khushwant Singh writes in the accompanying text--so it is no surprise that The Definitive Images is a schizophrenic collage.

Divided into three sections--"Timeless India," "The Road to Freedom" and "The Years of Freedom"--the book ranges from the hackneyed exoticism of Steve McCurry's "Dust Storm," a shot you feel certain you have seen in postcard form; to Henri Cartier-Bresson's powerful image of Jawaharlal Nehru announcing Mohandas Gandhi's assassination; to an uncredited journalist's picture of three young sisters, hanging by the neck, who killed themselves because their family was too poor to arrange their dowries.

The book's creators decided to locate the beginning of modern India in 1858, after the event that Indian patriots call the First War of Independence and the British know as the Sepoy Mutiny. But it contains few photographs from the period preceding the Freedom Movement of Gandhi and Nehru, which began in the 1920s. Only a handful of photographs, most portraits, represent the final days of the British Raj--a shortcoming that the exceptions, like Felice Beato's staged photo of Secundra Bagh after the British slaughter of 2,000 rebels there in 1858, make one regret. Alongside its newsy shots of political events, the book includes an embarrassingly sentimental shot of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar wielding a bat (and looking remarkably like he does today) at age five, as well as publicity stills from various Bollywood films.

For all its flaws, however, The Definitive Images is a stirring collection, evoking what many have called India's "contradictions." More importantly, perhaps, it reveals Panjiar to be the best sort of patriot, one who sees his country, spots and all, and can love it and hate it at the same time. It took no small courage to include, in a book of this sort, Raghu Rai's photograph of one of the 31 men blinded with bicycle spokes and acid by police in Bhagalpur, Bihar, in 1980; the notorious photograph of the Roop Kanwar sati, which ultraconservatives used to glorify a widow who in 1987 burned herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre, an outlawed practice; and D. Ravinder Reddy's picture of Hindu fanatics storming the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in 1992. This unflinching gaze undermines the myth of India favoured by the country's Hindu nationalists. Instead, juxtaposed here with Gandhi seated next to his spinning wheel and Nehru delivering his "Tryst with destiny" speech, these photographs stake a claim for an India with an unwavering commitment to a progressive, enlightened social justice.