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Eric Meola’s Private India

Reviewed by Murali Kamma Email Reviewed by Murali Kamma
December 2013
Eric Meola’s Private India

Photographer Eric Meola and children in India during Holi.

 

Some may find an Old Media tome, however beautifully produced, a little anachronistic in the digital age. Eric Meola’s India: In Word & Image proves why it is not. His passion and attention to detail give the photographs in his book a meditative quality, providing a welcome relief from the freewheeling New Media.

Do we really need another coffee-table book on India, especially if a previous edition is available?

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Probably not. But if you’re not familiar with photographer Eric Meola’s work and his earlier India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books), this “revised, expanded, and updated” edition will bring sparkle to your—or your gift recipient’s— holiday season. It’s not cheap, but if you’re looking for an immersive armchair travel experience in the company of a master photographer, this ticket to India is a bargain.

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The Bathukamma festival in Warangal culminates in the placement of lavish arrangements of flowers, along with an idol of the goddess Parvati, in a lake or river.

Meola has received numerous awards and his work appears in several collections and museums, including the National Portrait Gallery. A photographer for over four decades, and a Canon “Explorer of Light,” Meola’s first book, The Last Places on Earth, came out a decade ago. We can sum up his attraction to India by seven C’s: Colors, Complexity, Celebrations, Culture, Contradictions, Changes, Curiosity. One could easily add another C (Chaos)—but Meola writes, “I was startled one day to realize that what I had seen as infinite chaos was, in fact, infinitely ordered, and in that simple truth I found the soul of India.”

 

 

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A monk of the Gelugpa sect sews an elaborate thanka, an embroidered Buddhist banner that often depicts the life of Buddha, at the Thikse monastery, near Leh in Ladakh. Thankas are often hung in monasteries or carried by monks in ceremonial processions.

It’s an homage, as such books often tend to be, and one will certainly feel pride, even nostalgia, while spending time with a craftsman who takes such delight in bringing the country vividly to life. Less successful are the excerpts from well-known authors, mostly writing in English. These range from old-timers like Tagore, Narayan, Chugtai, Jhabvala, and Markandaya to contemporary writers like Rushdie, Sealy, the Desais, Suri, and Lahiri. We have Nirad Chaudhuri, along with Amit Chaudhuri. But the extracts are too short to be useful and there are no author bios. Though the text adds flavor, the lack of context can be a little frustrating. The concise photo captions, on the other hand, are illuminating.

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Nomadic woman on the sand dunes at Pushkar.

While monuments and majestic vistas are prominently featured, just as important are the people of India—and Meola makes the most of the trust and access he wins across the country, allowing him to showcase his tableau of images in the manner of a lush documentary. It is this “private India” that author Bharati Mukherjee refers to in her introduction to the book. As she notes, “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…”

Khabar, too, highlights this extraordinary ordinariness of India in its selection of Meola’s snapshots.

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Traditional Rajput musicians perform at the Jaisalmer fort.



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