The year was 1978. India was reeling from a decade of brutal war, political turmoil and economic unrest. Even so, the streets were alive with the collision of people from all walks of life. Decadent cabaret striptease clubs were all the rage. Religious festivals brought out a jubilant sense of community, even though the societal fabric was frayed by extreme inequalities.
And as the complex conundrum of the changing times unfolded, Mitch Epstein – then a 26-year-old American photographer notable for his use of colour, and one of the first few to incorporate it in fine art photography – embarked on a journey to take it all in.
“India, in its iconically spiritual otherness, had become lodged in my imagination as a way out of a disaffected American adolescence,” Epstein wrote in the introduction of his book In India, which came out last year.
The young photographer first journeyed to India in the late ‘70s to meet his then-girlfriend, the legendary filmmaker Mira Nair, whom he would later marry and work on three films with. Until then, his knowledge of India was limited to what he had seen in Satyajit Ray films or read about in literature. But once he arrived in the country in 1978, he quickly realised it was almost impossible to encapsulate in words or art.
“I was working in an extraordinarily complicated culture with the great privilege of a dual vantage. Through my marriage and intimate family life, I gained an Indian perspective – never fully of course, but more than if I’d been a tourist,” he said. “At the same time, because I was American, I was largely unencumbered by the complex and politically fraught codes of caste, class, and religion that ruled most Indians’ lives.”
Armed with a medium format camera and several hundred rolls of film that he had to pay a premium for at customs, Epstein set out to capture his experiences in India over a series of eight trips.
“India is such a complex country, where so many cultures meld together,” Epstein told VICE over a video call. “I didn’t have this ambition to do something definitive, nor did I consider myself a documentary photographer, but I decided to draw on documentary tradition for these photographs.”
His efforts culminated in a photo book titled In Pursuit of India, which was published in 1987. Then, almost three decades later, at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, he decided to go through his old films again and chanced upon a series of forgotten photos that were never published.
“I didn’t have the emotional and intellectual detachment to see the breadth of the work I made in 1987 at that point of time,” he said. His first photobook on India, he explained, was a romanticised ode to his experience. However, as he looked at unreleased photos from that time almost 35 years later, he was able to let go of his infatuation to create a series dedicated to a more authentic, raw and layered perspective this time around.
The resultant In India book has striking and impactful images that offer a glimpse of life in India between 1978 and 1989.
“This series of pictures are oriented towards a formal aesthetic that is almost tableau-like,” he said. “ I was looking at a lot of things at one time, and trying to orchestrate them in one frame. It was an intuitive process that needed me to be attentive and capture things as they unfolded in real time.”
Each photo, already visually striking, takes on more meaningful dimensions with the insight Epstein shares from his time in India. The series also weaves in intimate portraits he accessed as a producer on films like India Cabaret and Salaam Bombay!
“Getting close to somebody wasn’t a prerequisite to making a strong photo for me, but as I developed a relationship with some of my subjects, such as the dancers from India Cabaret, the trust and familiarity I built with them gave me the privileged opportunity to access something more intimate,” he said.
Some of the most noteworthy photos from his collection are those he shot of the cabaret dancers who also featured in his film, captured candidly as they performed with a playful smile or assumed an air of domesticity.
“Rekha (the woman in the photo) was one of the dancers I photographed,” he said. “In this picture of hers, taken a few days after the assassination of India’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi, photos of gods sat alongside a framed photo of Gandhi. What I like about her repose is that she’s clearly somebody in her domestic environment and she doesn’t look like a dancer but she’s comfortable with herself. She’s a person who’s religious and spiritual, but she’s smoking, and there’s this kind of banal domesticity that makes it sacred.”
In another standout photo, Epstein captures Rosy, a cabaret performer whose story he was especially drawn to.
“Rosy was unabashed, a bit provocative and even melodramatic in terms of her performance, but she was also in a lot of pain,” he said. “She had left her village to come to Bombay, and her family considered what she was doing blasphemous and rejected her. She was so comfortable with herself and very free with her performance, but that pain she carried, as I got to know her, was something that was vivid within her.”
His series also encapsulates the extreme inequalities that reverberated through the country by juxtaposing people from diverse social strata. “I wanted to engage with these extremes, these paradoxes, as they played out,” he said. This is perhaps most apparent in a photo taken at a five-star hotel near Mumbai’s Juhu Beach, where a group of men stand below a wall and look up to upper-class women lazing by the pool.
“That’s a very loaded picture because it’s one that enabled me to draw on how it felt to me as an outsider to be looking in,” he explained. “You have these two extremes of people, one of which is seeking an audience and the other [which captures] the indifference of those staying in five-star hotels on Juhu beach. I could understand and empathise with them both.”
While Epstein’s eye was quick to catch the inequalities that pervaded society, he was equally adept at zooming in on the safe spaces that people sought out to escape public scrutiny. One such image catches a tender moment shared between a couple at a public park.
“In New Delhi, the Mughal gardens were my retreat, a respite from the chaos of life,” he said. “This picture touches on that sense of repose, especially because for many couples in India, it wasn’t permissible to be publicly intimate, which made those moments even more precious. I related to this especially because Mira and I often faced scrutiny as an interracial couple.”
Ultimately, through his series, Epstein attempts to pack in the myriad memories, emotions and observations that characterised his experiences in India, all while teaching him an invaluable lesson.
“I am profoundly grateful for the ways in which so much of what I took for granted was called into question to give me a deeper sense of humility,” he said. “Being in India and having to relinquish my comfort zone and all the trappings I had surrounded myself with allowed me to see how, really, the most simple things can give real love and pleasure to people.”
Check out more photos from his series below.