August 1997
Photography Editor: Summer Forest Hoeckel

Street Acrobats, by Mary Ellen Mark, from India: A Celebration of Independence, 1947 to 1997, published by Aperture. This work by Mark is also part of a special exhibition celebrating fifty years of Indian Independence, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through August 31, 1997.


The fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence on August 15 is reason to look forward, as well as back, says Bombay‑born film-maker Ismail Merchant.

INTERVIEW: What are your memories of the day India gained its independence from Britain?

ISMAIL MERCHANT: I was ten years old. There had been black flags of mourning flying everywhere throughout the previous month for the thousands who died during the Hindu‑Muslim riots. On the night the radio broadcast told us of the transfer of power from Britain to India, all the black flags and Union Jacks came down and everyone was suddenly waving a tiny Indian flag on a stick. A great cry went up, and there were fireworks. But after a day of euphoria, the riots started again. Most Muslims fled to Pakistan, but my family decided to stay in India because we felt we had as big a claim as anyone to live in the land of our ancestors. We couldn't even think of leaving our roots.

I: Was the two-hundred‑year British raj a tragedy?

IM: Not only. We learned so much from the English, and the English learned so much from us: A bridge was built. But then, so was a fence, because there were certain people, especially the memsahibs [white women of high social status], who didn't want to associate with Indians unless they were maharajas or rich landowners.

I: How long was it before there was any sense of India as a sovereign state?

IM: It took about a year, but then Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. He had been such a promoter of Hindu‑Muslim unity and nonviolence, and such an opponent of the caste system, that his murder reversed the momentum to go forward. It was like a light going off. There was great uncertainty after that, and not until around 1955 was there any sense of security.

I: Is the fiftieth anniversary merely a birthday?

IM: It's much more significant than that, because it comes at the dawn of a new century when India will emerge as one of the most powerful countries in the world, economically if not politically.

I: Culturally, India has given so much to the world. You've participated in that, through your films with James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Why does India cast such a spell?

IM: For a thousand years India has been a magnet for people from all walks of life. And life in India offers richness and poverty, creation and destruction‑those things have always existed together.

I: Can Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs be reconciled?

Of course. If Ruth is a Jew, Jim is a Catholic, and I am a Muslim, and we three can live and work together, why can't all Indians?