Introduction by Bharati Mukherjee
I AM A CITY GIRL, Kolkata born, Kolkata raised. I see my surroundings in muted urban colors. The Kolkata of my childhood was a subtropical metropolis with a crumbling infrastructure. In fact—shameful as it may sound—urban middle-class children of my generation deliberately insulated themselves from street and rural India. They learned to close their eyes. My neighborhood was my entire universe, and in art classes in grade school I painted it in the sooty grays of cow-dung-fueled cooking fires, the grainy tans of summer dust, the muddy greens of monsoon-churned lawns, the brackish blue of flooded streets, the sludgy browns of open sewers. Few neighbors owned cameras. When a young woman was considered ready to be launched into the matrimonial market, she was led into a photographer's studio and posed to look shyly desirable in front of props that included potted plants and peacock feathers.
In the winter of 1948, my father splurged on a secondhand camera. All snapshots from the late 1940s and through the 1950s in our family album are in fuzzy focus, black leeching into white, the corners yellow from an excess of glue. All are of groups of relatives staring earnestly at the lens. Film was too expensive to waste on landscape, strangers, or "compositions." The only photos of individual faces were of departed elders, isolated from the group photos and then enlarged, framed, garlanded, and paid homage to every evening with incense and prayers.
Growing up, I had little awareness of photojournalism and no experience of photography as art. The only images of Kolkata that I chanced upon in library books were reproductions of Samuel Bourne's and Henri Cartier-Bresson's black-and-white photographs. Bourne had lived in my hometown from 1863 to 1869, when the subcontinent was under British rule; Cartier-Bresson had visited India for the first time in 1947, commissioned to record the newborn nation's celebration of independence. The India of these two European professional photographers was simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, each distinct from the other.
In Bourne's images I saw my universe distilled into colonial iconography. Cartier-Bresson's gravely humanistic images of post-Partition, post-independence refugees caught the wit and grace in the anonymous throngs of violently displaced, newly beggared men, women, and children who lived and slept on the sidewalk outside our house. What the well-housed urban-dwellers saw as chaos on the streets, photography showed as emergency-response choreography.
Even the willfully unobservant child can learn to open her eyes. For me, it began with the discovery of Mughal miniature paintings, with their vibrant colors and dense, inspired narratives. Later came moonless desert night skies and countless pin-sharp stars and cloudy galaxies—how could we not be persuaded by the myths they spawned?—and then at least one Eric Meola moment. In the mid-1970s, on a winter drive through the desert of western Rajasthan, our car came upon miles of saris drying on the concrete. As we approached (probably the first vehicle in an hour), word went out and the washerwomen arose magically from the dunes to pull the saris aside.
Eric Meola's India is at once contemporary and timeless. He uncovers the beauty (and the ballet) of survival embedded in the daily lives of ordinary citizens: a boy bathing his family's water buffalo, a man hanging up the day's laundry, wives toting tiffin carriers of food to husbands tilling fields; worshippers floating votive clay lamps in holy river water, a child being hugged by her mother, adults smearing each other with brilliantly hued powders during the annual spring "holi" festival, vendors hawking jasmine wreaths and marigold petals; an elephant painted to look like a tiger, lizards crawling up stone limbs of deities carved into temple walls.
The joy he takes in discovering his "private India" is infectious. Eric's vision embraces India's excess of color, complexity, and self-confidence, and I long for him to bring his all-discovering eye to my hometown and to the spectacular new cities of India, to find the vivid colors and subtle order we inattentive urban-dwellers missed the first time around.