My Favorite Coffee Table Book: India Unveiled

R obert Arnett’s India Unveiled is, for my taste, Coffee Book of the Decade.  Did you know that India is the most populous democracy in the world? It is the second-most populous country anywhere, after China. It is the world’s twelfth largest economy.

It is big as well – nearly twice the size of New England. India is rooted in religion. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism originated there, while Judaism, Christianity, and Islam arrived more than one thousand years ago.

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The author presents a copy of his book to India’s former president, Dr. Kalam with Smita Turakhia.

Annexed by the British East India Company from the early eighteenth century and colonized by the British from the mid-nineteenth century, India became an independent nation in 1947.

The struggle to free India was marked by widespread nonviolent resistance, as illustrated in my personal favorite movie, Gandhi. I know only the airports of India, transiting at Chennai and Bangalore en route to our Orphans International Tsunami project in Sri Lanka (my story), which lies just to the south of India. I have sadly never been outside of India’s airports.

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Yagna at Swaminarayana Temple, Bhuj, Gujarat.

Reading India Unveiled, and having just signed an agreement to open Orphans International India in Delhi (my story), I feel I will be there shortly. The government is proud that economic reforms since 1991 have transformed India into one of the fastest growing economies.

Yet, India still suffers from high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition, as graphically shown in Slumdog Millionaire (see my story). India Unveiled is a celebration of its people, landscapes, and traditional culture, organized regionally.

Featuring 268 beautifully produced color photographs, this work of art is a visual and emotional delight. It retails for $55.

For me, this hard-back trophy is an insightful portrait of the country. It combines history, geography, and travelogue, painting an insightful portrait of India’s diverse culture. The book captures the essence of India.

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Robert Arnett with the Indian Minister of Commerce Anand Sharma
and the Indian Consul General to New York, the Hon. Prabhu Dayal.

I am hardly the first to appreciate India Unveiled. Robert has won the Independent Publisher Award for Best Travel Book of the Year and the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Travel Essay of the Year. Others, far more scholarly than I, have raved about India Unveiled:

“This book is a stunning pictorial record of Robert Arnett’s pilgrimage… Recommended for all collections.” – Library Journal

“The most beautiful book on India I have ever seen.” – British Book-of-the-Month Travel Club

“One of the most revealing compendiums on India in decades….A highly recommended acquisition.” – The Midwest Book Review

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A church in Goa reflects the Portuguese influence beginning in the 1700’s.

This book is a must-read for anybody who has an interest in India, whether Indian or not. I recommend that everybody who plans to visit India buy this book before they go. This book will prepare them for the discovery of India.

Robert addresses modern-day social issues as well as history: Indian social practices such as untouchability, sati (widow-suicide), and an increasing materialism.

Based on his observations during his visits to numerous Indian villages, small towns, and cities, and from staying with Indian families of all social classes, Robert optimistically writes: “The Hindu values are so deeply ingrained that India will be able to assimilate Western technology into its own culture… the eternal verities of village India will be as vibrant as ever.”

The Indian government officials that I have chatted with say it depicts the nation fairly. India Unveiled is the only book written by a foreigner approved by the Indian Government to be placed in its embassies globally.

India Unveiled was presented by the Indian Government to Bill Clinton during his presidential visit to India. India’s Ambassador to the U.N. has presented India Unveiled to every U.N. Ambassadors.

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Robert Arnett giving a talk to kids at a school in Puerto Rico.

One reviewer chided the author, writing, “Arnett is in love with India, and further, he is in love with the idea of Hinduism, and further yet, he is in love with the idea of Indian spirituality becoming much more influential in the world and transforming it.

He’s not “objective” or “scientific” in the Western sense about any of this, but heartfelt in the extreme, a Hindu “evangelical.”

Robert seems entirely sensible to me in person, although perhaps kinder than most American men. He is a brilliant writer and photographer. A Southern gentleman with academic demeanor, he lives in Columbus, Georgia.

Another reviewer complimented him. “Besides being both captivating as a narrative and travel photography book, Robert Arnett expresses understanding of India that is rare in an Indian, let alone a foreign traveler to the country.”

Robert tours and lectures, but accepts money only for the sale of his books, personally handling all aspects of their editing, layout, publishing, distribution, marketing, and sale. “I love India,” is his rationale. Other reviews capture the book’s essence:

Organized by six broad regions, it is not meant to be a tome on India but a catalyst that propels the readers towards discovering it.

Though no one can claim to have captured the vastness, diversity and contradictions of Indian culture in one book, this fascinating volume comes pretty close.

It is very refreshing to see such outstanding photographic art combined with such accurate historical and cultural data.

I have heard a number of Indian people state how they learned much from it which made them more proud and aware of India’s great contribution to the world of spirituality.

This is a very readable book for younger people as well; attractive, simple, uncomplicated and to the point. This book must surely figure among the classics written on India.

The merit of a book written on a country can be gauged by the interest it generates in its readers for that country. Having lived outside India for a few years and having read many books on India, I can faithfully say that no other book transported my spirit closer to home than India Unveiled.

Robert Arnett understands that India’s wealth lies more in her spiritual knowledge than in her material riches. Like the U.S.A., India is a very large country and with the pictures being separated into regions it gives me a better idea of where I would like to visit on my next trip to this unique country.

It covers valuable and very interesting information about India’s main religions, spiritual practices, temples, and great yogis.

The author highlights the deep spirituality inherent in the people of India, regardless of their religion.

India Unveiled is written with a profound respect of India, its people and spiritual legacy to the world.

The author’s ample knowledge about India’s religion and spirituality is evident.

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Arnett and Smita Turakhia, Editor of India Unveiled, at the Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.

C.J.S. Wallia writes in the IndiaStar Review of Books a most interesting analysis of why Robert’s book seems to have hit a nerve with Indians:

A prominent Indian photographer, wrote: “For eight years, I worked as a photographer in India catering to western perceptions of what India is. I got fed up working in a world that I did not belong to — I could empathize with but never really understand what it means, say, to be a Bombay prostitute or a child laborer.

I wanted to look at the India I come from, at the changing styles and relationships which are taking place inside well-off families who live in big cities, and particularly my own city, Delhi.

When I showed this new work to some American editors, they couldn’t believe it was India (or if it was, then I had a gall to be photographing such people in a poverty-ridden country!). That just made me more determined.

There are many versions of India, and this is mine.” Indians have long resented Western photographers’ depictions of India. For decades, major American publications like Life and the New York Times often printed photographs showing the worst aspects of India.

In refreshing contrast, Robert Arnett’s India Unveiled is a profoundly sympathetic photographic essay.

In his introduction to India Unveiled, Robert describes the origin of his personal interest in India as stemming from his reading Autobiography of a Yogi, which led him to study Indian philosophy in depth.

Robert made several trips to India between 1988 and 1995, visiting not only the well-known tourist sites, but also remote villages. This book is a tribute to the traditional values of India.

For thousands of years, the basic cornerstones of Indian culture had changed very little. Robert says, “Hinduism is greatly misunderstood in the West. Most Occidentals do not realize that Hinduism is a monotheistic belief in only one God, who as Creator is beyond time, space, and physical form.”

“The entire pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are merely symbolic representations of different attributes of the One, Unmanfisted Spirit. Hinduism does not claim exclusivity of the true God only for itself.

One of the Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda, clearly states: “Though men call it by many names, it is really One.”

A native of Columbus, Georgia, Robert has a Master’s Degree in History from Indiana University. Undergraduate studies were at Tulane University, University of Georgia, and the London School of Economics in England.

While serving almost two years in Turkey as one of the youngest Commanding Officers in the Signal Corps, he taught History of Western Civilization there.

A popular speaker, Robert has spoken on India at the Smithsonian Institute, and Kennedy Center, as well as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford Universities.

One of my best friends in college was Sundaram Tagore, grandson of the Indian literary master and world leader, Rabindranath Tagore. Sundaram painted a picture in my own mind of his native India almost identical to the image Robert captures.

I was not surprised by Robert’s work, India Unveiled. I was pleased to be reminded of how beautiful our world is.

Photographs from the book and excerpts can be seen and read on www.AtmanPress.com.   Originally published in The Daily Kos, September 28, 2009.

LUCE INDEX
95 – Rabindranath Tagore
95 – Mahatma Gandhi
94 – Sundaram Tagore
94 – Robert Arnett

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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