by John Keay
Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of real civilisation.
G M Trevelyan, English Social History, pvii
Not until I saw Michael Thomas’ photographs did I understand why he wanted to publish them. Evidently a retired British architect with a well stamped passport, he had not immediately struck me as the obvious person to shed light on the tribal peoples of India. Where ethnographers, social anthropologists, missionaries and government officials have long laboured, how could a tourist with a camera have anything to add? Yet that in itself made me curious. Where was he coming from? How had he acquired this interest in an underprivileged section of Indian society that most visitors never even encounter? And why, for goodness’ sake, shouldn’t the insights of an intelligent amateur be just as revealing as those of a qualified professional? So I opened his file of photos; and scrolling slowly through these crisp unassuming images, I began to understand.
My curiosity paid off, and in respect of the tribes of Elusive India it is Michael Thomas’ curiosity that has paid off. He mentions our generation’s privileged access to cheap flights and distant destinations. But a ticket guarantees no more than a suntan. Without an inquisitive mind, a respect for the unusual and a dab of romance – not to mention a willingness to get lost – one learns very little. For Trevelyan the historian, ‘disinterested intellectual curiosity’ meant not just tramping battle fields and campaign trails but opening oneself to the joys of discovery. It is just so with Michael Thomas.
Reading his text and dwelling again on the photos, I am impressed by a muted sincerity that is perfectly suited to his shy subject-matter. The images, though beautifully composed, yet seem unposed. The explanatory paragraphs, though informative, eschew the romanticised pleading that mars most studies of endangered minorities. And once again black-and-white photography proves a much more sensitive medium than its brightly coloured cousin. A series of related titles that will draw further on his photographic collection is promised. All who enjoy Elusive India will await them with impatience.