A coffee-table book on India
Of the thousands of Indias that jostle for space in our newspapers, our poems, our art, and our consciousness, few are ever acknowledged. Even fewer are admitted. Perhaps as a way of addressing at least some of them, here is India for a Billion Reasons, a loose collection of thematic writings about the country, interspersed with photographs, old and new. It's a coffee-table book for what it believes is a largely ignored populace, the expatriates and the newly-returned NRIs.
In this compilation by Amit Dasgupta, most pieces seem to arrive at something we already know — there is no single entity known as Indian art, music, or cuisine. So is it only the geo-political boundaries that decide what is Indian? Is it the lived experience — either by rejoicing in the identity, or resisting it?
Some of the essays do make an attempt to answer. The opening piece, by Atri Bhattacharya, irreverent and dryly witty, unabashedly questions and probes; there is Tarun Basu's brief history of the Indian press; Pratik Kanjilal writes on contemporary Indian literature; Anita Ratnam speaks of the only country that has a dancing god as an icon; and there is a commendable chapter dedicated to crafts alone (resisting the tendency to club it with Art) by Ritu Sethi.
But, on the whole, we never really find out what the other reasons are, with the text tending to descend into cliché-ridden assertions. There's plenty of back-patting and much of the ‘India Shining' rhetoric — “the next superpower”, “9 per cent growth”, and “global” and “diversity”. It neatly swaps the image of the ‘mysterious Orient' for a new veneer, one of “rapid growth”, “inclusiveness” and “progress”.
Where the book moves away from this, and comes alive, is in the photographs. There are very few of the picture-postcard images that typify India; most of them are moments captured in not-so-perfect lighting, with inadequate space to manoeuvre the camera, the subjects faintly blurring as they went about living, moving.
There is a sense of everydayness to the photographs, from not having lain in wait for days on end for the decisive moment. It offers a pause, letting you look a little closer — who would have noticed the way the skin on a Kuchipudi dancer's feet tightens as she freezes in a move? Or that moment of abandon while Pungcholam dancers swivel into the air with their drums?
There is the nuclear force in Ustad Bismillah Khan's face as he places his lips on the shehnai; or the peculiar pucker your face makes only after a fiery pani puri. There is, achingly, a row of idols of the invincible Durga in nothing but flesh tint, waiting patiently for the artiste to bequeath jewels and clothing to them.