How does the earnest ignoramus and seeker after knowledge get to grips with a country that has 1.2 billion inhabitants (and rising), a land mass of 1.25 million square miles, and no national language? British imperialists tried, over a period of 200 years that mixed construction and destruction in roughly equal proportions, but eventually, baffled and bruised, were forced to give up. Such a nation would be near impossible to administer under any conditions and, in the words of Winston Churchill, for most of its existence India has been “no more a united nation than the Equator”. Instead, India has always been crowded with contrast and confusion – peasants and industrialists, immense wealth and miserable poverty, aspiration and resignation. It’s a country at one and the same time infuriating and charming, a land mass as mysterious as it is exasperating. “Sixty years of independence,” cried an elderly native in an Internet café beneath an ice-cream parlour in the tourist town of Calangute, “and what have we achieved?” Nobody replied, though there are an infinite number of possible answers, from ‘everything’ to ‘nothing’.

S. Prasannarajan is Editor-at-Large of India Today and his impressive book provides the seeker with a means of discovering India that is far more comfortable than an oven-hot motor-rickshaw ride through rush hour Delhi, or trying to sleep on the floor of the night bus from Mapusa to Pune, or seeking fuel to heat a near-freezing dak bungalow in the foothills of the Himalayas. India is a stunning picture book, with minimal text other than informative captions. In over four hundred photographs it covers major and minor events in India’s history since the year before the Mutiny of 1857, known to most Indians as the First War of Independence. The Mutiny itself is comprehensively illustrated – the bullet-pockmarked gates, residencies and summer-houses; the military brotherhoods; the disinterred remains of the slaughtered, laid out in the dust of Lucknow; the bodies of the rebel leaders hanging from the gallows; and the Begum Zeenat Mahal, wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, and titular King of Delhi. In Felice Beato’s portrait, the Begum looks formidable enough to cope with being married to a man who was regarded by his followers as Light of the World, and believed that he had magic powers that enabled him, at will, to turn himself into a housefly.

Prasannarajan’s book provides us with a guided tour of India’s set pieces of architecture: the Red Fort; the Victoria Terminus in Bombay; Delhi’s Qutub Minar tower; the Vishnu temple on the Isle of Srirangam, the biggest Hindu temple in the world; Watson’s Hotel in old Bombay (where the Lumière Brothers films were first shown in Asia, to an audience restricted to Europeans); the Pearl Mosque at Agra; and the Taj Mahal. But Prasannarajan also makes room for the hovels and slums (identical to those of today); the caves and mud-huts; the factories and schools; and the streets that have always provided work and entertainment, drama and riot.

A cast of millions has always been on hand to act out real life on these sets. India shows us all the sub-groups of the vast population: aristocrats and valets, warriors from hill and plain, rajahs and nawabs, dancers and musicians, railwaymen and rug-makers, fakirs and schoolboys, brides and bridegrooms – from the ‘worthy’ to the ‘untouchable’. The cast list is long and the stars are many. How wickedly the camera catches Edward, Prince of Wales, looking bored out of his mind on a visit to India in the 1870s, and King George V some forty years later enjoying a tiger hunt. How mischievous Gandhi looks as he manufactures illicit salt in 1930; how coldly indifferent Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, appears as he stands trial in 1948. And how dated is the richly-coloured image of the garlanded Beatles with the Maharishi in 1968…

The book brings together the work of some of the finest photographers of all time: Julia Margaret Cameron (one of the 19th century’s most brilliant portrait photographers), Herbert Ponting (official photographer on Scott’s ill-fated Polar expedition), Helen Messinger Murdoch (the Boston-born originator of some of the earliest colour images), E.O Hoppé, Margaret Bourke-White (the first female war correspondent, and the last journalist to see Gandhi alive), and Ernst Haas. Ponting provides one of the most beautiful images in the book – of women hurrying to and from the entrance to the Golden Temple of Amritsar – and this is matched by Hoppé’s glowing 1929 head-and-shoulders profile of a Malayali boy in Kerala. Bourke-White’s photojournalism catches the chaotic last moments of the Raj, and the waves of frightened refugees that criss-crossed the sub-continent in the immediate aftermath of the Partition.

The last hundred or so pages of the book show how dramatically both India and photojournalism have changed in the last fifty years. In the world’s largest democracy, the camera appears to miss nothing – famines, floods, earthquakes, wars, protest marches, sporting triumphs, terrorist outrages. But ordinary, everyday poverty seldom makes modern headlines. Only when the poor are hit by famine, drought, disasters on a Bhopal scale, or civil war do they appear in our papers or on our screens. India ends in a blaze of glory, with Bollywood, fashion models, sporting heroes, billionaire entrepreneurs, and the launch of India’s first lunar probe. Everything’s a-bustle in the world’s largest democracy.

On August 15, 1947 India became an independent nation, free from British control – an event that Churchill believed to be an act of outright treachery. People took to the streets that day and the crowds danced and clapped their hands in celebration. More than sixty years on, they still dance in the streets – tiny, skinny little girls shimmy and shake their way through the choking traffic jams of all the highly polluted cities. Sometimes they are accompanied by their brothers who stand mute beside them, cupped hand scarce big enough for the coin they pray a motorist or a rickshaw passenger may give them. Some things seem destined never to change in India.

And, in Prasannarajan’s wonderful book, look at the haunting image of the Earl of Mayo, Viceroy of India, receiving Sher Ali Khan, Amir of Afghanistan, in 1869. It is a moment in history, for neither leader had long to live. In 1872, Mayo was knifed to death by a convict on an official visit to the penal settlement of Port Blair; and in 1879, Sher Ali Khan died on the eve of the Second Afghan War, just as a force of 40,000 men set out on one of Britain’s regular punitive expeditions into Afghanistan. It took four years and sixteen pitched battles before the British believed they could march away without losing pride. The camera has always had so much to teach us.

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