The photographer Mitch Epstein fell in love with the idea of India long before he went there. As a young man from small-town New England, he watched Ravi Shankar play the sitar at the Woodstock festival and paid $35 to be initiated into transcendental meditation, inspired by clips of the Beatles at the maharishi’s ashram. It wasn’t until he was in his late 20s, having studied photography under the great American street photographer Garry Winogrand in New York, that he properly explored the subcontinent with his first wife, the Indian film-maker Mira Nair, and found the images to match his imagination.
Between 1978 and 1989, Epstein made eight extended trips to India and took tens of thousands of pictures, while collaborating on three of Nair’s films (So Far from India, India Cabaret and Salaam Bombay!). This picture was taken at the annual Republic Day parade through New Delhi in 1984, the year of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and is included in a new retrospective book of Epstein’s India work. The intimacy of his crowd scene is made by two relationships: the first is between his camera and the man with the exuberantly patterned shawl to match the balloons behind. The second is that loose embrace between the two young men on the left of the group, who appear to have wandered into this scene from a different film set.
Epstein came to such images with both an insider’s and an outsider’s eye. “Through my marriage and family life, I gained an Indian perspective – never fully of course, but more than if I’d been a tourist.” Still, he notes, it has taken him three decades to really see the India he photographed. His book was a lockdown project, searching through thousands of contact sheets for the images that lived up to the colours of his memory.