Delighted, charmed and horrified: Steve McCurry’s vibrant photos of India (and Indians)

Delighted, charmed and horrified: Steve McCurry's vibrant photos of India (and Indians)
Photo Credit: Photograph by Steve McCurry (courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
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“There’s a lot of people here.”

This was Steve McCurry’s first thought when he arrived in India for the first time in 1978 with just a few clothes and a bag of film. Over the next three decades, the celebrated American photographer returned more than 80 times to the country that would steadily “delight, charm and horrify” him.

McCurry is best known for his portrait of a green-eyed Afghan refugee girl with a fierce gaze that made it to the cover of the National Geographic magazine in 1985. The photo changed his life, he says.

This time, the award-winning photographer is back with Steve McCurry: India, an exquisitely-produced book of photographs of the multitudes who so overwhelmed him during his first visit. The photographs span decades. One, taken in 1994, captures Mumbai’s milling masses with the moon rising over the city. In another, crowds walk on pontoon bridges built across the Ganges during the 2001 Kumbh Mela.

Crowds gather for the Kumbh Mela, 2001. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Crowds gather for the Kumbh Mela, 2001. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

McCurry has travelled across India – from Kashmir to Kerala – capturing the extremes in culture, class and landscape that make up this vast country.

“Perhaps the most stark among the extremes McCurry illustrates are those between India’s rich and poor,” writes author and historian William Dalrymple in the book’s introduction, referring to McCurry’s ability to throw light on India’s “extraordinary contradictions”.

The contradictions are evident. On one page is a 1993 photograph of a homeless boy trying to sell roses at a traffic signal in Mumbai, while in another taken in 1996, Harshvardhan Singh, the “yuvraj” of the erstwhile state of Dungarpur, sits regally amid a collection of snarling heads topping tiger skins rolled neatly into rugs, and several deer and other animal heads mounted on the wall.

Young boy sells flowers, 1993. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Young boy sells flowers, 1993. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Harshvardhan Singh of Dungarpur at home, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Harshvardhan Singh of Dungarpur at home, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Steam engine passes in front of the Taj Mahal, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

Each photograph captures people as they go about their daily lives – a boy with a sand boa coiled around his neck, a gnarled old man with Holi colours settled on the wrinkles on his face and a figure draped in a pink tarpaulin for protection from the Mumbai rain.

Man covered in gulal during Holi, the festival of colours, 2009. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Man covered in gulal during Holi, the festival of colours, 2009. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Woman and child on the Howrah Mail train en route to Kolkata, West Bengal, 1982. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Woman and child on the Howrah Mail train en route to Kolkata, West Bengal, 1982. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

The photographer says he consciously gave ‘regular’ people pride of place in his book. “During my time in India I met Amitabh Bachchan, the Dalai Lama and Indira Gandhi, but they are not in the book,” he said. “I have never really gravitated towards celebrities. The book is about ordinary people – those living in villages or working in the city. It’s about a million stories or situations of certain kindnesses, of people opening up their homes and lives.”

He added: “The book is more like a poem – expressions and moments with the people I thought were some of the most interesting encounters I had had here.”

Couple wades through monsoon waters, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Couple wades through monsoon waters, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

It is difficult to visit India without getting a sense of the importance religion plays in people’s lives, and McCurry hasn’t missed this. A scene from 1996 shows a Sikh devotee praying with the Golden Temple glowing in the background, while another captures devotees carrying a statue of Ganesha into the sea at Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach. Yet another is a portrait of a blue-skinned child dressed as Shiva seeking alms.

Young child, dressed as Lord Shiva, seeks alms, 1998. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Young child, dressed as Lord Shiva, seeks alms, 1998. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

McCurry has covered war and conflict during his career. In such areas, he says, many people simply want their stories to be told. “That is what I’m basically doing in most cases,” he said. “Letting them know that their story matters.”

He equates photography to writing: “Things that interest or fascinate you – could be a person or a place you want to explore or write about – inspire you. Pictures, like words, are just another way to describe the world we live in.”

Father and daughter on Dal Lake, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Father and daughter on Dal Lake, 1996. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

But he admits that photographers always suffer from a bit of self-doubt about whether they have managed to get everything they needed from a shoot. “Photographers deal with something like a blank canvas,” he said. “Sometimes you think you’ve taken a great picture but nobody responds to it. You’re never quite sure you have everything, but at some point you have to stop shooting because otherwise you never will.”

And what does he think of that bane of the smartphone generation, selfies? “I wish I had taken more selfies,” said McCurry who, over the decades, made the transition from analog to digital cameras.

He appreciates how technology has allowed almost everyone to take photographs. But he is careful to differentiate it from art. “Technology is now small and easy,” he said. “It’s just an inevitable progression like the typewriter to the laptop. All the selfies in the world are great but it doesn’t count as great art. It is the same as sending a text to a friend. A text is not great literature. Your text to a friend about getting lunch won’t bring a reader to tears. Similarly, a selfie won’t move a viewer.”

Agra Fort train station at dusk, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)
Agra Fort train station at dusk, 1983. (Photograph by Steve McCurry. Courtesy Phaidon/Roli Books)

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Connecting everyone to the internet won’t solve the world’s development problems

Connecting everyone to the internet won’t solve the world’s development problems
Photo Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP
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By 9.30am today I will have skyped Malawi, emailed Ghana, Facebooked Nepal, paid a bill online and used the satnav on my mobile phone. It feels a long time since we first got colour TV at home and, years later, when I accessed the internet using a dial-up modem. When I recalled these moments to my son he yawned. Aged, 19, he doesn’t remember a time before ubiquitous connectivity.

According to a new report from the World Bank, more than 40% of the global population now has internet access. On average, eight in ten people in the developing world own a mobile phone. Even in the poorest 20% of households this number is nearly seven in ten, making cellphones more prevalent than toilets or clean water.

Digital technologies are spreading rapidly in developing countries. Digital Dividends Report
Digital technologies are spreading rapidly in developing countries. Digital Dividends Report

There is no doubt that the world is experiencing a revolution of information and communication technology, bringing about rapid change on a massive scale. But despite great expectations for the power of digital technologies to transform lives around the world it has fallen short and is unevenly distributed, with the most advantages going, as ever, to the wealthy. The World Bank argues that increasing connectivity alone is not going to solve this problem.

Digital dividends

Around the world, digital investments bring growth, jobs and services. They help businesses become more productive, people to find better life opportunities and governments to deliver stronger public services. At their best, the report finds that inclusive, effective digital technologies provide choice, convenience, access and opportunity to millions, including the poor and disadvantaged.

For example, in the Indian state of Kerala the community action project Kudumbashreeoutsources information technology services to cooperatives of women from poor families – 90% of whom had not previously worked outside the home. The project, which supports micro-credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment, now covers more than half the households in the state.

The World Bank also emphasises that the poorest individuals can benefit from digital technologies even without mobile phones and computers. Digital Green, an NGO working with partners in India, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ghana, Niger and Tanzania, trains farmers using community-produced and screened videos.

Many governments are using the most of positive digital dividends to empower their citizens. In countries with historically poor birth registration, for example, a digital ID can provide millions of people with their first official identity. This increases their access to a host of public and private services, such as voting, medical care and bank accounts, enabling them to exercise their basic democratic and human rights.

Digital divides

For every person connected to high-speed broadband, five are not. Worldwide, around four billion people do not have any internet access, nearly two billion do not use a mobile phone, and almost half a billion live outside areas with any mobile signal. Divides persist across gender, geography, age and income.

Across Africa the digital divide within demographic groups remains considerable Digital Dividends Report
Across Africa the digital divide within demographic groups remains considerable Digital Dividends Report

Those who are not connected are clearly being left behind. Yet many of the benefits of being online are also offset by new risks.

The poor record of many e-government initiatives points to high failure of technology and communications projects. Where processes are already inefficient, putting them online amplifies those inefficiencies. In Uganda, according to the World Bank, electronic tax return forms were more complicated than manual ones, and both had to be filed. As a result, the time needed to prepare and pay taxes actually increased. The report cites the risk that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them.

The general disruption of technology in the workforce is complex and yet to be fully understood, but it seems to be contributing to a “hollowing out” of labour markets.

The labour market is becoming more polarised in many countries. Digital Dividends Report
The labour market is becoming more polarised in many countries. Digital Dividends Report

Technology augments higher skills while replacing routine jobs, forcing more workers to compete for low-skilled work. This trend is happening around the world, in countries of all incomes, demonstrated by rising shares in high and low-skilled occupations as middle-skilled employment drops. The World Bank notes that:

The digital revolution can give rise to new business models that would benefit consumers, but not when incumbents control market entry. Technology can make workers more productive, but not when they lack the know-how to use it. Digital technologies can help monitor teacher attendance and improve learning outcomes, but not when the education system lacks accountability

Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits —- circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.

A tremendous challenge

The report emphasises that investment in connectivity itself is not enough. In order to achieve the full development benefits of digital investment, it is essential to protect internet users from cybercrime, privacy violations and online censorship, and to provide a full set of “analogue complements” alongside. These include:

  • Regulations, to support innovation and competition
  • Improved skills, to enable access to digital opportunities
  • Accountable institutions, to respond to citizens’ needs and demands

Ultimately, while the World Bank continues to champion connectivity for all as a crucial goal, it also recognises the tremendous challenge in achieving the essential conditions needed for technology to be effective.

In my privileged home, digital technology brings me choice and convenience. It will be a long time before the digital revolution brings similar returns for everyone, everywhere.

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The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites

The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites
Photo Credit: Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
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On January 30, an octogenarian Kashmiri Pandit, Janki Nath, died in his home in Malvan village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. He had a government job, but he retired just as Malvan was emptying of its Pandit inhabitants in 1990. He sent his daughter to the safety of Jammu. She is married now and lives in Delhi. Even after the three massacres of Pandits in Kashmir Valley in 1997, 1998 and 2003 – a time when even most of those who stayed back chose to leave – Janki Nath decided to brave it out. He was an old man and preferred death to the uncertainty of exile.

After militancy forced about 400,000 Pandits into exile in the early 1990s, a few families, especially in the villages, had chosen to stay behind. Most of them did not have any member with a salaried job and depended on agriculture for sustenance. Janki Nath was among the handful.

After his death last Saturday, the news agency Press Trust of India reported that in the absence of any Pandit, his Muslim neighbours performed the last rites. The report, carriedlater on The Indian Express website, said that the deceased had been unwell for the last five years and that his Muslim neighbours were taking care of him.

That there were no Pandits present there is a blatant lie, but we will come to that later. First: why do journalists in Kashmir Valley feel compelled to report the death of a Pandit? Janki Nath was no poet laureate or social activist. He was no Padma Shri. Why is it news that a Pandit has died and his Muslim neighbours have come to his house in condolence or that they have helped in the arrangements of his last journey?

Vinod Pandit, an activist who lives in Kulgam district, says he often visits the bereaved families of his departed Muslim neighbours. But there are no cameras in tow. No flash bulbs invade the privacy of the grieving family.

Two: who among Janki Nath’s neighbours felt compelled to call the media? Malvan is a remote village on the edge of a forest and there are no TV stringers there. So who called the PTI correspondent and what did he see?

Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Courtesy: Rahul Pandita

Did he see everything but choose to ignore it? He must have seen a man, wearing a pheran (Kashmiri loose coat), quietly tying in an arc over Janki Nath’s bier a thin mulberry tree branch, as per the centuries-old tradition of the Kashmiri Pandits. That person was Vijay Ji, a Pandit from a neighbouring village who rushed to Malvan along with three other members of his community after hearing about Janki Nath’s death.

The PTI correspondent must have seen another man, again in pheran, and a woolen cap, reciting a Shiva hymn, making balls of soft-cooked rice and ghee, to be offered as last meal to the departed man. That person was Jaw’e Lal, another Pandit from another neighbouring village. The PTI correspondent must have seen a woman putting walnuts and marigold flowers over a plate of rice grains and then lighting an earthen lamp over it and keeping it on the right side of the dead man’s head. Her name was Kishni Pandita and she also came from a village nearby.

The PTI correspondent must have seen a man who lit Janki Nath’s pyre. His name was Surinder Pandita. His family had to leave Malvan in 1990. Obviously, he knew Janki Nath and his family. He is a state government employee, currently residing in a camp established for Pandits who returned to Valley to take up jobs they badly needed. He was accompanied by a young activist, Rahul Ramesh Raina, who lives in the same camp. They took along a bundle of peanuts and candy, which is required for the last rites. Janki Nath, they realised, had kept his Ramnami cloth ready, as many elderly Hindus do in apprehension of their departure.

The PTI correspondent must have also seen an old woman, sitting quietly on one side, looking intently at the dead man. That was Rani, Janki Nath’s wife who lived all her life with her husband and was now mourning his departure. In all, there were at least 12 Pandits in attendance. Of course, there were several Muslim neighbours who were present as well during the ceremony. But in the presence of a priest and so many Pandits, there was no question of them performing the man’s last rites.

The PTI report begins with the clichéd phrase: “In a heart warming example of Kashmiriyat…” The Pandits often wonder about this strange word which has permeated ink-like through the blot paper of our existence in exile. We wonder about it because we are like Luis Borges’ Funes the Memorious, unable to forget anything. We remember that it couldn’t warm the hearts of men and women in Malvan as their Pandit neighbours were fleeing one after another in 1990. We remember the coldblooded murder of a young Pandit teacher and his father in the neighbouring village of Ashmuji in July that year (The teacher, Shiban Krishan Kaul and his father, Radha Krishan Kaul were killed by terrorists after destroying their house. His wife, Nancy Kaul, stayed with the corpses the entire night as no one came to their rescue. The two were cremated the next morning by the army.)

Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Courtesy: Rahul Pandita

This is not the only time when false stories like the one from Malvan have been reported from Kashmir. We read these stories every year. It is not that senior journalists or the civil society in Kashmir do not know the charade behind these stories. But they choose to keep silent.

Eleven days before Janki Nath’s death, a newspaper in Kashmir published this cartoon. It was the day when we were observing the 26th anniversary of our exile. In hindsight, many of us are relieved that someone created this cartoon. Because it is on such occasions that the veneer comes off and everyone can see what lies beneath.

I ask our erstwhile neighbours and erstwhile friends from Malvan, Ashmuji and elsewhere in the Valley to do us a favour: stop engaging with us on what happened in 1990. Do not tell us that you were equally helpless. Because, as Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote to his German friend, there exist a thousand ways to manifest one’s solidarity with the oppressed. Propagating the falsehood of warmth is not one of them.

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Behind the smile and the pleasant welcome, a detailed evaluation is in the works.

What flight attendants really think about when they first greet you
Photo Credit: Tom Purves/Flickr
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I’ve been a flight attendant for 25 years. Greeting passengers at the door requires concentration on several levels. Of course the objective is to make you feel welcome and comfortable, but that’s only one aspect. While I’m trying to give that impression, I’m evaluating you very closely, and I’m considering a number of possibilities:

Is this person intoxicated?

What attitude do I get from this person? Helpful? Belligerent? Withdrawn?

Is this person physically fit? Powerful? If so, where is he/she sitting?

Any physical disabilities or hindrances such as a limp, injured hand/arm, etc.?

Traveling alone? With one other or with a group?

Comfortable/fluent with the English language?

All of these things help me to assess people who can be helpful to us on a flight or even if they might develop into a problem. Remember that we will be hurtling through the air between six and seven miles above the earth. If a problem develops, one cannot simply dial 911 and wait for the police, so the whole idea is to prevent problems from getting airborne, and be prepared for them if they do develop in flight.

Obviously, if someone appears to be intoxicated, we don’t want them on the plane; the potential for future problems is too great. Likewise, if someone boards the plane with hateful and nasty attitude toward the crew, that’s a concern that needs to be addressed before departure. (It’s rare, but it has happened.)

I watch for disabilities that may disqualify someone from sitting in the exit row. They need to be able to physically lift a heavy hatch (up to 60 pounds) or open a heavy door (several hundred pounds). Likewise, if they cannot understand English, they cannot understand shouted commands, nor can they read the instructions on how to open the exits.

If I see someone who is muscular, powerful, strong, physically fit, I memorise his/her face and make a mental note of where they are sitting. I consider this person a resource for me. In the event of an attack on the flight or on me, these are my “go-to” people. If a situation looks like it could develop, I’ll privately and discreetly ask one of these people if they would be willing to help us if necessary. Help might involve subduing or restraining an unruly passenger. We hope it never happens, but we will prepare just in case it does.

Safety first

I try to learn if we have any passengers who are airline employees, particularly crew members who have been trained in the in-flight procedures. These people also are a resource for me. They’ve been trained in what to do in an emergency – whether medical, mechanical, among others. They know how to handle the situations as well as I do, and are trained to become an instant “team member,” fitting right in immediately if needed. WhenUnited flight 232 crashed in Sioux City Iowa in 1989, it was a disaster that should have killed everyone on the plane. But when the problems began, the head flight attendant remembered that an employee, a pilot, was riding in the coach cabin. She told the captain, who told her to ask him for his help. It was his assistance in the cockpit that helped save so many lives.

Considering that air travel is fraught with inherent danger, made more so by the political climate of the world today, one must be constantly alert and aware of one’s situation. When I greet people, you better believe that I’m always very aware of each passenger who steps through the door of the aircraft. And the items mentioned above are only a few of the myriad of “triggers” that we watch for.

For example, I’ve had passengers board who look pasty and pale, deathly ill. (We removed them; nobody wants their flu germs!) I often see passengers who are afraid of flying and need a word of comfort and encouragement. I’ve had people try to smuggle pets in their purses or handbags, and bottles of booze in their briefcases. (Booze is allowed as long as it stays capped. You just can’t drink your own liquor on the plane.) So yes, I need to be vigilant and aware, all behind my “greeting face” of smile and pleasant, comforting welcome!.

As for thanking people as they leave, I’m probably thinking about getting out of my uniform and relaxing in the layover hotel, or at home! Or, I may be trying to figure out if I have enough time to grab a sandwich on my way to the next flight. Or, I may be figuring out how to get to my commuter flight home (I work in San Francisco but live in Denver). Once I had to think about the furious drunk guy who was waiting in the boarding area for me to come out. He was angry because I had cut him off during the flight (he could hardly walk), and was determined to “have it out” with me. As it turned out, he sat down in a seat in the terminal to wait for me and passed out!

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