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Steve McCurry’s extraordinary India

A compendium of 30 years of photographs shows India’s rich contrasts

Rahul Bhattacharya | October 19th 2015

While browsing through Steve McCurry’s “India”, I found myself thinking of an older book from its publisher, Phaidon: “River of Colour: The India of Raghubir Singh”. On looking it up, the correspondences emerged. Both are anthologies of photographs in colour, pan-Indian, ranging over three decades with an overlap in the 1980s and 1990s. They tackle similar themes and situations: festivals, wealth and poverty, floods, exhaustion, grandeur. They coincide on places: Varanasi, Rajasthan, Bombay, Calcutta; and kinds of people: sadhus, wrestlers, pilgrims, destitutes, royalty, children, the daughter and a chauffeur of the same vintage-car collector, albeit in different cities. It was not the symmetry I was interested in, however, but the difference in treatment.

McCurry, famous around the world for, above all, the National Geographic “Afghan Girl”, has among his principal talents the eye and skill to make iconic images. They feel natural on the covers of books and magazines, and it is little surprise that some are available as posters. A photograph in this collection, from Rajasthan in 2012 (above), shows an elephant with its forehead, ears and parts of its trunk decorated in pink, green, yellow and orange, and at its feet the two mahouts are asleep.

There are elephants in Raghubir Singh’s book too. In “Cleaning a bicycle”, the eye is so drawn to the man in a lungi extracting shine and glint from his vehicle, that it does not quite notice the elephant hulking in the background; and, after all, nobody else in the frame is looking at it either. Another picture has an elephant in the foreground, offering its blessings to a devotee in a temple—but Singh’s photographs of temples, festivals or monuments, are really more about how Indians stand, sit, watch, congregate, and, though the photographs are mute and still, how they talk, walk and fight. I adore them. This signals an aesthetic preference on my part for the quotidian, but I raise the point to better explain the effect of McCurry’s book, which can be extraordinary. 

It is a tall book by the standards of any coffee table, and the pictures run to almost full height or width. They have presence. Some portraits are close to life-size. The colours are saturated, possibly oversaturated. Taken together the big pictures are also big-picture: everything that you ever heard about India as a land of contrasts is here confirmed. There is some humour, though of the kitschier kind; his wittier India pictures have been left out of the collection. There is McCurry’s commitment, working in water or heaving crowds (or both: among his acknowledgements is one for “the people who rescued me while I was drowning at Chowpatty beach during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in 1996”). There is, throughout, the sweat of travel and its artistic rewards. Trains and railway platforms supply some of the collection’s well-worn photographs, but also some of the best and subtlest.

Like the great documentary photographers, McCurry is interested in work. A photograph from 1993 in the city then called Bombay has two ageing workers seated inside a textile mill. The men are on a break, and topless but for cloth towels hanging around their necks. Their hands rest on Indian clubs, and the machinery is at their backs. The picture is unusual, painterly, possibly staged, and beautiful. The tenderness with which one is looking at the other, who is looking away, the first’s arm on the other’s shoulder, they could be lovers. Another of my favourites is of clerks in a hospital working at a wall of filing shelves. The spines in the bottom half of the frame are striped red, white and blue, those in the top half are predominantly green. Wearing uniforms of blue-green, two men, each immersed in a file, make a kind of figure of Y.

When the everyday pierces through the extraordinary, rather than vice versa, the effects are memorable. There is a photograph that I viewed as one of spousal understanding/misunderstanding, shot in 1983 in Gandhi’s birthplace, Porbandar. The woman, her sari worn the Gujarati way (seedha pallu), is holding a black-and-white shopping bag of woven plastic; the man with dyed hair arranged in a combover, carrying in his hands a grey briefcase, a closed black umbrella and a pair of black shoes, is turned to her. Their faces suggest that they may have left home without something important, and this is the moment just before the blame-apportioning. It is a picture I would have loved to bits even if the couple was not stood waist-deep in water.

India is out now, published by Phaidon

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