India is a nation of complexities, but American photographer Steve McCurry’s “India" shows an unchanging dimension to the land and its people. “No matter how India changes, there’s something about it that makes you feel like you’re stepping back into another time and age," says McCurry on email.

McCurry, who most famously made the photograph of the green-eyed “Afghan girl" for the National Geographic and as a Magnum photographer has travelled extensively across the world, in particular Asia, has a special relation to this country. It was the first he came to as a young photographer, and it has taken him and his team over a year to sort through the “many tens of thousands" of images that he has shot here over nearly 40 years.

The result is a new book of photographs, titled simply India. Contrary to expectations, this is not just another outsider’s record of “exotic India". In fact, the photographer himself would probably bristle at being called an outsider. “I feel at home in India. If I were to choose to live my life in just one country, I would choose India," he says. What he captures in several photographs are those sights, both quirky and bizarre, that are so familiar to the Indian eye, the chuckle-inducing humour in everyday situations.

There are also a fair number of single-person portraits, the subjects—non-affluent, largely with a rural background—all looking directly into the camera. Just like with the “Afghan girl", it’s the eyes in each one of them that catch your attention, eyes that hold a hundred tales. This is what interests McCurry. “I spent so many years in war zones, areas of conflict and places where you are always on guard. However, the images I make are about the people themselves, not a document of the events that they are forced to endure. I like to tell stories through my photographs—sometimes it is in an area of conflict, which can show the human spirit under extreme conditions. Other times, it is telling human stories of everyday life as people go about their jobs, interacting with friends and family, and participating in daily activities."

Save for a couple of photographs—of the daughter of a vintage car museum owner driving one of the cars, and the maharawal of Dungarpur seated regally in his house, surrounded by an obscene number of tiger skins and animal heads—this is street photography, capturing sights and moments. So in Varanasi, washed shirts are spread out to dry by the banks of the river, the armholes exposed like eyes, resembling a line of scarecrows. In Kolkata, a labourer pushes the shell of an Ambassador atop a two-wheel cart towards a workshop. In Porbandar, during the floods, a couple seem to share an intimate moment as they wade together in knee-high water, the woman holding on to her bag and the man his briefcase, umbrella and shoes, signs of middle-class respectability. In another image from the same flood, an old tailor balances the tool of his trade, his sewing machine, on his shoulder as he walks with a smile, as though this were a normal part of his life. There is a photograph of two sleeping men, possibly mahouts, lying trustingly at the feet of a chained elephant. The pachyderm is raising a foot, in that moment suggesting a different, more dangerous scenario for the sleeping men.

“Technology changes, times change, but the essence of the culture and the people basically stays the same," McCurry says. And this essence is what he has tried to freeze in his frames.

When pictures tell a story:

Men carrying an abandoned car to a workshop in Kolkata, West Bengal, 1996.
Men carrying an abandoned car to a workshop in Kolkata, West Bengal, 1996.
A couple wades through knee-deep water in Porbandar, Gujarat, 1983
A couple wades through knee-deep water in Porbandar, Gujarat, 1983
A man walking up the stairs leading to a dentist’s clinic in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, 2004.
A man walking up the stairs leading to a dentist’s clinic in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, 2004.
A steam engine with the Taj Mahal in the background in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, 1983
A steam engine with the Taj Mahal in the background in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, 1983
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