India Then and Now represents a way of looking at ourselves that is not necessarily universal.

India Then and Now, text by Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Vir Sanghvi, photo research and editing by Pramod Kapoor, Lustre Press/ Roli Books, price not stated. MANY problems confront you as you read and flip through the pages of a book like India Then and Now, lavishly produced (and, one assumes, accordingly priced, for, the price is not stated anywhere in the book) and richly illustrated with photographs, many of which are of historical importance. What exactly is the book about? Is it a record of how we look at ourselves, our past and where we are headed? If so who exactly is doing the looking back and the looking around? How inclusive or exclusive is the India imagined, as it was or as it is? And to whom exactly is India being explained and elaborated upon and defined? Or, is it a fruitless endeavour to ask these questions of an exercise intended to result in a coffee-table book? The book has two sections: "India Then", which covers India down the ages, up to Independence; and "India Now", which looks at post-independence and contemporary India. Each section has a short textual part but is mostly made up of an extensive collection of photographs.

Definite stances

The "India Then" section has an overview of Indian political history by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Compressed, as it essentially has to be, given that the overview is done in the space of about 30 pages, the text still manages to take definite stances regarding various issues in contemporary debates of Indian history. Here, for example, is his take on the Aryans: "The phase of history after Harappan Civilisation is generally referred to as the `coming of the Aryans'. Such a description, however, is fraught with misconceptions, the principal one being associating the Aryans with a race... The other misconception is that the Aryans came to India as invaders. In fact, the Indo-European-speaking people migrated to India in small groups..."(p.14-15). And here is his take on the Sultanate of Delhi: "The coming of Muslim dynasties to the throne of Delhi is often mistaken as a major break in Indian history...[but] there were continuities of historical processes set in motion in the centuries preceding... Another common error is to describe Muslim rulers as foreign rulers... Implicit in the idea of Muslim rule is the assumption that Muslim rulers carried out or encouraged large-scale conversions to Islam. No historical evidence substantiates this" (p.22). The photograph section has some breathtaking panoramas and cityscapes taken by pioneers like Felice A. Beato, Samuel Bourne and Lala Deen Dayal. And of course, purely to show how oriental the Brits were, there are the usual snake charmers and naked tribals.

Modes of perception

The textual part of "India Now" has been written by Vir Sanghvi. If anything, it indicates one of the ways in which we, or at least a particular section which passes for the "we", imagine ourselves now: through the eyes of others. Though the current mood of the nation is upbeat, of an India on the move finally, when he was a student at a British public school in the early 1970s, he says, perceptions of India, and the reality on the ground, tended to be largely negative. The turning points, for him, when our perceptions of ourselves changed, were the election of Rajiv Gandhi and the initiation of reforms by the Congress government in the early 1990s. Today, he says, India is a land of possibilities.

Urban phenomenon

Vir Sanghvi himself acknowledges, almost as an afterthought, that, as yet, this vision is not shared by everyone. It is an urban phenomenon and there is no place here for other visions and realities of India. But then, if you were somebody who would actually go to a bookstore and buy this book, presumably you wouldn't need these other visions and realities. Still, one couldn't help but wonder what sort of a book this would have been if that man on the cover for "India Now", the painted devotee, actually got to write this book. Or whether, he would even feel the need to imagine an India.Pramod Kapoor, the photo editor of the book, says in a foreword that India is a land of diverse "photographic opportunities" and that the challenge is to "provide a meaningful order". As one closed the pages of the book, that order, at least for this reader, remained elusive. And, as far as I know, "The Nilgiri Mountain Train, recently declared one of India's World Heritage Sites" definitely does not operate in "Karnataka, South India".