Photography: The camera reveals the essence of India

India: A Celebration of Independence 1947-1997

Royal Festival Hall, London

The aim of this exhibition, of both Indian and non-Indian photographers, is an ambitious one: "To convey something of the quality that unites India's people - no matter how profound their differences." It's the stock-in- trade of humanist photography: to look below the surface and reveal an essence - pride, industry, fortitude, confidence - that we all share. But to achieve this in work about a country with a startlingly diverse cultural mix and over a period of 50 years, from post-colonial birth pains to modern industrial power, could be seen as inviting trouble.

Perhaps, as Raghu Rai, one of the 23 photographers whose work is shown here, says, it is the pace of India that, if anything, unites it. And it is that pace that the exhibition captures so well.

Sunil Janah's India on the brink of independence is a land of great men, heavy industry, mourning or celebrating crowds. The subtext is of patient resolve and faith in the bright future of a young country. The work of Henri Cartier-Bresson shares some of this monumental nation-building ambition: Indira Gandhi at a Congress session sits serenely below an image of her father (and father of the nation), Nehru; Nehru shares a joke with Lady Mountbatten outside Government House as Earl Mountbatten stands diffidently, uncomfortably, to their side. But the strength of Cartier-Bresson's contribution, and of the exhibition as a whole, is the work that is less purposeful and opens a door to the quirks and rhythms of everyday life.

This can be seen in "Snake Charmer with Son", taken by Mary Ellen Mark in 1981 - a relaxed and intimate portrait of family life, saturated with colour, unmannered yet depicting a scene of otherness to Western eyes. Sanjeev Saith, Harry Gruyaert and Alex Webb's use of colour, meanwhile, is more often an end in itself, an abstraction of the riots of clashing hues - film posters, advertisements and clothes - that bewilder the eye on every street.

The exhibition, too, focuses on the margins of modern Indian society. Dayanita Singh's studies of eunuchs in Delhi blur the distinction between family snapshot and reportage; Ketaki Sheth's pictures of Bombay street weddings, folk dancers and behind-the-scenes Bollywood replace the studied formalism of the "critical moment" with spontaneous, crowded scenes that each suggest their own story.

The range of topics touched on in the exhibition is as diverse as the country itself: political and religious conflict, new roles for Indian women in the armed forces, the tensions and possibilities that surface when traditional ways of life collide with the present. From the earnest perfection of Sebastiao Salgado's studies of the working population to Charles Lindsay's smoke-softened industrial landscapes, it seems as if all of India were here. Photographs are always quotes out of context, "tiny sparks of accident", as the critic Walter Benjamin put it, but what better text from which to quote.

Admission to the exhibition, sponsored by Ford and Prudential, is free. Enquiries: 0171-960 4242

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