Steve McCurry: India, a world of make-believe

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 15, 2015 13:50 IST
Devotee carries a statue of Lord Ganesha into the waters of the Arabian Sea during the immersion ritual off Chowpatty beach; Mumbai, 1993.

Steve McCurry’s images capture India and her paradoxes. This excerpt from William Dalrymple’s introduction to McCurry’s new book articulates why his pictures are so arresting

Steve McCurry has been coming to India for more than thirty years, knows it intimately, understands its charms, and has seen it change. These magnificent photographs, some justly famous, many new and revelatory — reveal the beauty of the country and highlight its extraordinary contradictions.

Perhaps most stark among the extremes McCurry illustrates are those between India’s rich and poor. We see the landowner with his hunting trophies pinned to the wall, and we see the beggar dying beside the railway tracks, invisible to the passengers on the train; we see the soaked beggar children fingering desperately at the windows of the taxi; we see the Bombay elite, coiffed and laundered, with their fleets of vintage cars and uniformed chauffeurs, and we see the Mumbai slumdogs in their tin-roofed shacks and stinking wastelands. All this is an accurate representation of the stark extremes that are India’s defining reality.

Crowd carries a man during Holi, the festival of colours; Rajasthan, 1996.

Bicycles hang on the side of a train; West Bengal, 1983.

...McCurry is also alive to another of India’s most paradoxical contradictions: that this graspingly materialistic country, the middle class of which is obsessed with brands and Bollywood and ostentatious extravagance in all its forms, is also one of the most spiritual countries on earth. For all the silliness and vulgarity that McCurry photographs in modern urban India, he never forgets that India is still a profoundly sacred land. It is, after all, a country with 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals. Pilgrimages account for more than half of all package tours, and the bigger pilgrimage sites vie with the Taj Mahal in popularity: 17.25 million trekked to the shrine of Vaishno Devi. McCurry has made many of these holy treks himself, and the rich tapestry of India’s different faiths is one of the enduring themes of his work. There are beautiful images of devotees immersing statues of Ganesh in the sea at Mumbai, or playing holi, the festival of colours, in Rajasthan, or visiting astrologers on the ghats of Varanasi...

India by Steve McCurry; Phaidon/Roli Books (Rs 3,500,PP207)

... Steve McCurry’s work remains utterly original: no one else could have produced any of the celebrated shots in this book, and his unmistakable stamp is on every image. This collection is a testament to a long-standing love of India, and a commitment to recording its wondrous diversity. It represents a genuine panorama of the country, from Rajasthani desert dust storms to monsoon-flooded Bengali villages from Kashmir to Kerala...

Mahouts sleep with their elephant; Rajasthan, 2012.

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