December 6, 2008

Glorious India

(I've added some hyperlinks to the books & Eric Meola's web-site in the text below, which is from a NYT article)

India: In Word and Image

These books about India bring to mind two kinds of traveler: the type who approaches a country earnestly, guidebook in hand, and the type — more devoted to escapist pleasure than betterment — who surrenders to a place and absorbs its essence by osmosis. Arguably, the second type has a more memorable journey, while making less effort.

The encyclopedic INDIA (DK, $40), by Abraham Eraly and others, seeks to govern the ungovernable — a rapturous, multicultural civilization hurtling into the future — by compressing it into orderly compartments. There are, for example, panoramic landscape photos, and neatly laid out sections about prehistoric India; the daily life of a Punjabi schoolgirl; Gandhi; ayurvedic therapy; textiles; jewelry; a Hindu bride; and various types of architecture.

Although the text is accompanied by striking pictures, some of them fascinating depictions of religious rituals and domestic life, the images and words are meant less to seduce than to inform: there are more than 24 million Christians in India; its state-owned railway is the second-largest employer in the world; it didn’t publish its first vernacular newspaper until 1822. This is not uninteresting cultural data, and the authors have devised a painless teaching method — short chapters, timelines and plenty of images to hold our attention. The well-organized research will provide a comprehensive, if clinical, briefing for a traveler to the country, as long as that traveler plans to confine himself to civically optimistic settings. As thorough as the book appears to be, it avoids some of the less enchanting details of life on the ground. There is no entry in its lengthy index for “poverty,” and there are no photographs of disabled beggars or fields of garbage being picked over by small children.

© Eric Meola

Eric Meola’s photographs in INDIA: In Word and Image (Welcome, $60) also present an idealized India, but one that is impressionistic and so tailored to the hedonistic armchair traveler that looking through it constitutes a kind of exotic five-star vacation in itself. The portraits, landscapes and photographic studies of flora and architecture are more art than documentary, and are accompanied not by history lessons, but by masterly literary prose that delights us and — isn’t this really the point? — makes us long to go to India.

The color-drenched images evoke an Eden where beautiful women, plump children and succulent fruits compete to catch the eye. But the accompanying text — excerpts from works by writers including Kiran Desai, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth — is less reliant on the hot pink saris and temples that dazzle tourists. Given the largesse bestowed on Western readers by Indians writing in English, the selection process for the passages included here must have been agonizing. From them, the reader learns not just about India the ancient civilization and exotic destination, but about Indians ­— in all their eccentricity and humanity. The country’s tastes, nuanced colors and protocols are also revealed.

Next to an image of a woman’s hair festooned with orange flowers is R. K. Narayan’s description of a mature protagonist, regarding herself critically in a mirror, just before she steps into a garden to gather jasmine for her hair. “She was more or less satisfied with her reflection, except for two strands of gray hair which she had just discovered; she smoothed them out and tucked them cunningly into an under-layer.” With those words, the writer extends Indian citizenship to women on all continents.

Similarly, a passage by I. Allan Sealy allows us not merely to learn about India, but to know it intimately. He describes an encounter with Indian sweets: “Here are pannikins of crushed pearls, trays heavy with sweetmeats, the mouth-rejoicing gulab jamun, the tongue-delighting jalebi, the tooth-vibrating kulfi, the universe-arresting Sandila-laddu.” Such words can hold their own with any pictures, even Meola’s glorious photographs of a bewitching country.

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