Wherever he went in India, photographer Sanjay Austa, 36, found people in rural and urban areas devouring the daily newspaper. Even in metros, where a large number of people use public transport. It was a stark contrast to what he had found abroad, in countries like the US, where people preffered reading books.

The difference struck him. And over four years, Austa has travelled through cities like Madurai, Nagpur and Hyderabad, as well as hamlets in Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh) and Pushkar (Rajasthan), to capture the Indian reading habit. The result is more than 1,000 pictures, including one of a man at this year’s Jaipur Literature festival reading a newspaper in the middle of a session on William Shakespeare.

It was in 2009 that Austa clicked his first shot of a person reading a newspaper. That was the trigger to a longer commitment for this Delhi-based freelance photojournalist, who also loves travelling. His photographs on social issues, like his documentation of elderly prostitutes and of people who were affected in the 1984 Sikh riots, won him the Indian Confederation of NGOs’, or iCONGO’s, Karamveer Puraskar in 2010.

Dubbed, with a trace of irony, Taaza Khabar—A Nation of Newspaper Readers, the ongoing photographic documentation throws light on the all-pervasive role of the newspaper in India. “The reason why newspapers are still around in India is because of the vernacular language newspapers. People in small towns and rural areas hardly read English newspapers. But most will read a local paper," says Austa.

In a picture from Meghalaya, a man seated in a taxi, stuck in a traffic jam, is reading a newspaper in the local language; in another, a man in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, reads his paper with a cow being milked in the background; and in a third image you can see a sadhu in Haryana engrossed in a newspaper (not shown here). There are also frames with several people—shoppers, people on the road—glued to their copies of the newspaper, oblivious to everything else around them.

Rather than a strict focus on the reader in a tightly cropped frame, Austa has shot these images with a wide-angle view, weaving the tapestry of the reader, his newspaper, and the surroundings. “For me the story that a photograph tells weighs more than the technique used to capture it, and in our country, no story is complete without people, and lots of people," he says. But this reading is such a personal indulgence that the main challenge, says Austa, is to not let the people know that they are being photographed. Which is why he usually maintains a distance or even drops the picture if the subject comes to know he/she is being photographed.

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