Ajay Jain has been able to do what most can only dream of. He quit his job to travel the length and breadth of the country, clicked photographs and made a living out of it. Inspired by Bill Bryson, the 48-year-old travel blogger, writer, photographer and cafe owner has come out with nine books so far, including the popular road-signs book Peep Peep Don’t Sleep. His latest self-published coffee-table photo book, Indians (Rs 3,000), will be launched at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam on July 8.
It’s almost been a decade that Jain started Kunzum Travel Cafe in Delhi, a pay-as-you-like travel cafe that hosts open mics, gigs and poetry slams. In the past decade, Jain has travelled over 1,00,000 km, across 22 states and union territories. Starting from Delhi, his journeys took him to Kashmir, the entire Himalayan belt, to Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh (the easternmost motorable point in India), to Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka.
India and its people have long caught the fancy of many photographers, including Steve McCurry. “Where else would you find so much of natural and man-made heritage: landscapes, monuments, history, food, religion, festivals, customs, dressing and people. No other country, not even any continent, has such diversity,” says Jain, adding, “If we want to make India a better place to live in, we need to know our country. For that we need to travel. And meet Indians. This book is a pointer to get you going.”
The black-and-white treatment gives a certain kind of timelessness to the portraits, over 100 of them, of tribals as well as city dwellers. “By eliminating colour, I chose interpretation over factual narration.” he says, adding, “These (unnamed) portraits are more of a representation of communities and heritage, and not so much about their immediate personal lives.” Jain has stories one too many to narrate. The shikara boatman he clicked in Kashmir, he later found him featured in Michael Palin’s book Himalaya. Or sighting a Maldhari reclining on his charpoy inside the Gir National Forest, they live amid the lions.
Or even shaking a leg with senior Apatani ladies in Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh after a temple ceremony. These women, famed for their beauty, had to pay a price for it. To save them from being abducted by neighbouring tribes, Apatani men “defaced” them with facial tattoos and huge black wooden studs inserted in the nose. The practice has stopped now. “It’s just a matter of time before they all go away, taking a nugget of anthropological history with them,” he says.