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A celebration of India

Glossy, large, weighty (as in heavy) and handsomely put together: you expect all this from a coffee table book.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2006 05:12 IST

Glossy, large, weighty (as in heavy) and handsomely put together: you expect all this from a coffee table book. What comes as a happy surprise are the two essays: Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s condensed history of India and Vir Sanghvi’s very perceptive profile of present day India. Vir is both incisive and insightful in the way he has located popular Indian cinema in the cultural life of the country.

A few years ago, the eminent French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier was upset with us Indian filmmakers for allowing the Government of India to sign the GATT Agreement saying that it would lay open the Indian market to a flood of Hollywood films and threaten the very existence of Indian cinema. He was not aware then that Hollywood cinema had never occupied more than 10 per cent of our screen time in the last 100 years and there was no indication that this percentage would increase either in the present or in the future. Looking at the size of the market for Indian films (3.6 billion tickets sold last year) Hollywood is now tentatively attempting to increase revenue share in the Indian markets by financing the production of films made by Indians.

One of the points that Vir makes about the size of the Indian population echoed what V.K. Krishna Menon had said in my class several decades ago (in his avatar as a visiting Professor at my University): “Don’t think of the growing Indian population simply as additional mouths to feed but as a valuable asset in nation building.”

The photos from the past in India: Then & Now are simply marvellous. I had seen several of these earlier but a significant number of them are published here for the first time by researcher, and editor Pramod Kapoor, who also happens to be the publisher of this book. The work of the three most well-known photographers of the second half of the nineteenth century — Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne and Lala Deen Dayal — are amply represented here. Spectacular panoramic views of 1858 Lucknow ravaged after the uprising; the Moharram procession in Mehboob Ali Pasha’s Hyderabad; the early 20th century aerial views of the Jama Masjid and old Delhi; and Lutyen’s New Delhi in the process of being built are some of the highlights. Apart from these, there are rare portraits of Wajid Ali Shah, a Nepali princess and a potpourri of orientalist exotica as seen and perceived by the colonialist eye.

Old photographs have a fascination that far outweighs anything that contemporary photos have to offer. Looking at each picture is like making a serendipitous discovery. The reason why contemporary photographs don’t do this is because we often take for granted much of what we see in them. Old photos, unlike paintings, are frozen time capsules that invite you into their spaces to experience living moments of a world and its people long gone.

I have great appetite for pictures from the early days of photography. I look forward to more such publications from Pramod Kapoor. What about a book devoted entirely to Ebrahim Alkazi’s collection of rare photographs? All in all, an excellent book to browse through in your leisure hours. It also makes a great gift.

Director Shyam Benegal’s last film was Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005)