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INDIA 24.01.2012Features

Mr Singh, Christmas Day at Narlai, Rajasthan. 1999

Light of the World

A British love affair with India

Text: Marcus Reichert | Images: MARK LUSCOMBE-WHYTE

Apparently, Mark Luscombe-Whyte doesn't live anywhere, although his heart belongs to India. When he left school in England, at the age of 16, he began to travel and he's never stopped – adopting the great tradition of this sort of intrepid artistic behaviour. Occasionally, Luscombe-Whyte has found himself subjected to an atmosphere of horrendous violence – he was having dinner at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai just moments before a gunman came into the room and opened fire. As the onslaught ofterrorist attacks continued to rip apart the city, he watched events unfold on the television in his own hotel room down the street. 

His first published photograph appeared on the front page of the Mail on Sunday – the Iranian bomb attack on High Street, Kensington. He was beaten up by the police when photographing the Notting Hill riots of 1987. And in his early 20's, he made the money he needed for his forays into the great unknown beyond England by working the night shift in a photography lab. 

In 2010, Luscombe-Whyte walked 800 km in solitude from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, resulting in one black and white image for each of the 31 days of his trek. He always finds the most extravagant camera he can for the job, although invariably it is the right camera. When photographing in the Sinai Desert, he used a 5 x 4 format. When he began taking pictures in India, he bought his first Hasselblad. His father was born there and his grandfather was a doctor in the Indian army, while his grandmother worked as a governess to the Maharaja of Bundi. After escaping from Burma, his grandfather ended up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He died shortly after the end of the Second World War. 

All of this Luscombe-Whyte would learn after he began his travels in India. Curiously, his first trip to India was to Goa with his girlfriend for a Christmas holiday. He hated the ‘Goa scene’ but saw something beyond it and would later return alone with no discernible purpose, just a flight case filled with film and a camera. When he began showing his pictures around to make money, he quickly got commissions from National Geographic TV, Discovery, Departures, Harpers & Queen, Conde Nast Traveller, and Vogue. Now he had embarked upon a career as a location photographer – shooting interiors, food, portraits, hotels, and anything else necessary – with a keen eye for the exotic. To date, he has produced nine ‘coffee table’ books with subjects as varied as Mexican architecture and North African cuisine. But the only subject that remains his profound obsession is India.‘Basically, apart from the bureaucracy, I pretty much love everything about India – the people, culture, architecture, resilience, chaos, etc. I have never really focused on either the great wealth or enormous poverty but everything in between, hence the title of the book I am working on: Between the Blessed and the Cursed. As an atheist I am also fascinated by faith, which you confront everywhere in India. Apart from odd moments, all I have ever encountered in India is kindness and I have always tried to repay that by showing India in a positive and dignified way. Saying that, I have a tremendous amount of respect for people like Don McCullin who dedicate their lives highlighting the many injustices that do occur.’ 

But Mark Luscombe-Whyte's obsession, as manifest in his photographs, has a distinctly poetic dimension, one that encompasses mysticism and the peculiarity of human nature. His photographs reveal how extraordinarily particular cultures are in their isolation. There is a grandeur to this pursuit that assumes an undeniable theatricality. He shot a story on the Adi, a tribe in Arunachal Pradesh that had not been seen by westerners since the 1860's; and another on Sonnepur Mela, the largest animal fair in Asia. There is something of the impresario in what Luscombe-Whyte chooses to photograph.

A favourite subject is the Maha Kumbh Mela, the massive Hindu Pilgrimage to the Ganges. It is the largest gathering of humans on the planet, known as The Greatest Show on Earth. Within six hours of arriving to photograph this event in 2001, all of his cameras were stolen. By chance, as he was about to depart for Bhuj in Gujarat, he met a cameraman who he had worked with on a Discovery production and who had a friend arriving in a five days. Together, Mark and the cameraman arranged for new equipment to be brought out so that he could work. Two days later, Bhuj was hit by an earthquake that left 20,000 dead and 167,000 injured. He wasn't so lucky in 2003, when the lab in London in which his black and white archive was stored was flooded and 20,000 negatives were lost. But unexpected kindness is also hovering in the wings, as when he left 72 rolls of film for a documentary in the back of a Mumbai taxi and in desperation returned to his starting-point – only to find that the taxi driver had got there before him with the film.Mark Luscombe-Whyte tells the story of being alone in the middle of the jungle in Arunachal Pradesh, when out of the darkness appeared a man who asked, ‘Sir, how many days walk is it to your village?’ He quotes Norman Lewis, who described India as The Happy Ant Heap, and then goes on to say: ‘To make India work you have to shed your European skin, and this takes some time, even if you know it well.’  

Marcus Reichert is an American painter, author and film director currently resident in France.

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