INDIA, A literary feast. A festtival of books is at hand to be celebrated with the Festival of India,a two-year program of artistic and cultural presentations throughout the United States. Whether or not you've ``visited'' India through any of these events, these books will take you there. And this festival-between-covers will continue long after the formal celebration ends later this year.
AN enchanting journey through the centuries can be taken in India -- Art and Culture 1300-1900. This is the catalog for ``India!,'' the recent four-month exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The man responsible for both ``India!'' and the publication that succeeds it is Stuart Cary Welch, special consultant to the Metropolitan and curator of Indian and Islamic art at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum (see article below). Mr. Welch is a man who has made fantastic discoveries and is determined to have us share them. The word ``catalog'' hardly does justice to the 500-page, 400-plate work he has produced. Welch is a master of his subject, and he shares what he knows with precision and thoroughness, but he never patronizes.
The book is wholly free of the academic posturing which, in misplaced obeisance to scholarship, often renders art monographs impenetrable. His writing is so clear and engaging that we're held rapt through the most arcane material.
He assumes that we, like himself, are interested in everything, and so believing, he makes us interested. In entries of 200 to 800 words, every item in the exhibition is put into artistic, historical, cultural, and human context.
We learn about the tastes, personalities, and habits of the great Mogul, Deccan, and Rajput rulers and art patrons. We begin to appreciate the subtlety and diversity of Indian miniature painting, and to recognize the stylistic hallmarks of its schools and individual practitioners.
We become conscious of the powerful affinity Indian artists had with nature and of the skill and sensitivity with which they depicted animal and plant life. We are touched and dismayed by the impact of the former British presence on Indian art.
In addition to entries for individual objects, each of the catalog's five sections -- ``The great tradition''; ``tribe and village''; ``the Muslim courts''; ``the Rajput world''; and ``the British period'' -- is prefaced by a short essay that puts what follows into historical and cultural perspective.
The book contains nearly 200 high-quality color plates. Inexplicably, some black-and-white plates are rather muddy. Tedious physical descriptions of objects well illustrated in photographs are mercifully sparing.
SOME 615 million people -- 80 percent of the country's population -- live in India's 500,000 villages. Village India, by cultural historian Stephen Huyler, takes us deep into this world virtually unknown to Westerners, including many who have visited India.
Mr. Huyler's forthright prose is devoid of color, irony, or humor. No matter. It gives a ``you are there'' sense of what life in these hamlets is like, and of the ageless religious and cultural traditions that shape this life. Unfortunately, some sections dealing with geographic regions of India have a rather lifeless quality.
The best part of ``Village India'' is the nearly 300 color and black-and-white photographs contributed by Huyler.
They are voluminously captioned and touch on virtually every aspect of village life, from animal husbandry, to potterymaking, to funeral rites, to hair styles.
Although he has produced one or two outstanding pictures, Huyler is an amateur photographer whose goal is information, rather than aesthetics. Surprisingly, the resulting collection of snapshots -- some indifferently composed or out of focus -- gives the entire work an appealing immediacy. IN Plain Tales from the Raj, a paperback reissue based on a 1976 radio documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation, 66 English men and women recall life in India during the last five decades of British domination, which ended in 1947. (The book's title, of course, is derived from Rudyard Kipling's first collection of stories out of British India, ``Plain Tales from the Hills.'')
While the raj survivors -- the oldest born in 1876, the youngest in 1918 -- are extensively quoted, providing vivid evocations of place and time, much of the text consists of authoritative exposition.
Charles Allen, a member of a noted raj family and an expert on British India, has edited the material to provide a detailed picture of a life style that now seems very remote indeed. We learn about the domestic, professional, and social lives of Anglo-Indians -- about their relationships with other Englishmen and with Indians. We soon realize what rigidly prescribed lives these people led, how they strove to transplant Sussex, Hampshire, or Cornwall to Calcutta and Delhi, and how isolated they were from the Indian people.
The viewpoint of ``Plain Tales'' is exclusively that of the occupying colonials, a perspective that's distinctly unfashionable and even offensive today.
But 30 years of hindsight have endowed some of the raj survivors with a capacity for endearing, sometimes penetrating insights about the raj and its people. BENARES is India's holiest city, considered to be ``the greatest tirtha, or `crossing place,' between this earth and heaven,'' observes Henry Wilson in Benares. The book is a penetrating exploration of the ``City of the Gods,'' with its hundreds of temples, tens of thousand of pilgrims, and massive ghats, stone platforms with steps descending into the sacred Ganges River.
Young Mr. Wilson (he's 26) possesses a great photographer's eye. He's fascinated by chiaroscuro -- the play of light and shadow -- and he imaginatively exploits the possibilities of chiaroscuro through well-produced color pictures taken in the soft, white beams of early morning or the hard, yellow light of late afternoon.
Wilson's pictures of crowds -- a central fact of Indian life -- possess strong visual designs often lacking in such photographs. People dominate his images; yet we are given a palpable sense of Benares as a place.
In fewer than 20 pages of simple prose, Wilson provides a rich portrait of the city. He also conveys the realization that for hundreds of millions of Indians, spiritual life and everyday life are indivisible. NO British legacy in India is more important than the railroads: They protect and feed whatever economic, political, social, and cultural cohesiveness this vast, verigated land possesses. In the little picture book, The Imperial Way, author Paul Theroux and photographer Steve McCurry take us 1,500 miles by rail across the top of the Indian subcontinent, from Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, to Chittagong, in eastern Bangladesh.
``India is peculiarly visible from a railway train,'' observes Mr. Theroux, whose reportorial narrative is the best part of the book. With marvelous economy and wry humor, he conveys the human and physical textures of the journey. We're right beside him on each of the 10 trains, and on the way, we acquire a volume of information about people, places, and events just beyond our vision.
Mr. McCurry's photographs are less effective and far less involving than Mr. Theroux's essay. Some are arresting, to be sure, but others seem contrived, as if they were staged to support the book's theme. Furthermore, there's not enough linkage between the photographs (which are poorly reproduced) and Theroux's splendid narrative. ROLAND and Sabrina Michaud's India of One Thousand and One Nights is a big, flashy, expensive book-beautiful of gorgeous color photographs. It presents India as a kind of romantic confection consisting wholly of exquisite buildings, poetic colors and scenes, noble faces, and pretty ladies.
The photographs by the French couple are subtle and imaginative in their composition and use of light, and the book's large, oblong format is used effectively in presenting the photos.
Animation and shifting mood are nicely conveyed in portraits employing several similar but subtly different frames of the subject. Particularly noteworthy is the Michauds' inspired attempt to parallel Monet's famous sequential paintings of Rouen cathedral by photographing the faade of the Taj Mahal from a fixed vantage point at different times of the day. India -- Art and Culture 1300-1900, by Stuart Cary Welch. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 478 pp. $65 hardcover; $35 paper. Village India, by Stephen Huyler. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 272 pp. $50. Plain Tales from the Raj, edited by Charles Allen. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 240 pp. $13.95 paper. Benares, by Henry Wilson. New York: Thames and Hudson. 80 pp. $29.95. The Imperial Way, by Paul Theroux. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 143 pp. $19.95. India of One Thousand and One Nights, by Roland and Sabrina Michaud. Boston: New York Graphic Society/Little Brown. Unpaginated. $40.
I KNEW that most of the people likely to see the book know very little about Indian art,'' said Stuart Cary Welch of his ``India!'' catalog reviewed above. ``Some author-experts simply discount this factor, and if what they write isn't understood, it's the reader's problem,'' he said in a recent interview at Harvard University, where he is curator of Indian and Islamic art at the Fogg Art Museum.
``In my writing, I try to bring the art, which is about life, to life,'' he said. ``I want to give the reader/viewer a sense of the human beings for whom and by whom the things were made. In this way, I think peoples' initial response to the beauty of the things can be greatly enhanced.''
Mr. Welch spent more than five years planning and assembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recently concluded ``India!'' exhibition, the focus of the two-year Festival of India being held in the United States. He credited museum director Philippe de Montebello for supporting a big, costly exhibition that easily could have failed to excite the public's interest.
``If you're doing a show on, say, Renoir or Manet, you can be fairly confident of a good turnout,'' Welch noted. ``We didn't know what kind of reception we'd get.''
Although he termed such a venture a ``gamble,'' Welch is experienced in bringing Indian art to the public. In 1963, he organized and wrote the catalog for the first-ever show of Mogul painting, at New York's Asia Society. Since then he has orchestrated a number of other exhibitions and has written more than 14 articles and books on Indian art.
He is not surprised that the four-month ``India!'' exhibition and the subsequent catalog (``India -- Art and Culture 1300-1900'') have been well received.
``These works may be stylistically strange to many viewers,'' he observed, ``but their intrinsic beauty is obvious and irresistible. You don't have to know anything about this art to see its beauty, any more than you have to know about flowers to respond to their beauty.''
Indian art embraces universal themes, he noted.
``Much of this art is about human character and human behavior. And it speaks to us about nature and animals in a special, magical way.''