THE jingle of loose change in the pocket, the reassuring metallic frames of high-rise architecture, the clips that hold together sheafs of paper in ever-increasingly documented times, the forever irritating buckles on sandals, the tall tumblers associated with well-churned lassi and the small ones with curved ends that go with decoction coffee. Our lives are touched by steel in an infinite number of ways, its omniscience evidenced in the tiniest of experiences. In a commemorative volume sponsored by the Steel Authority of India, Man, Mettle & Steel, with a history of the steel industry penned by Usha Rai, award-winning lensman Raghu Rai celebrates the endurance of this ubiquitous metal in the Indian landscape.
The subcontinent's steel-making prowess was hailed over 2,000 years ago by Alexander the Great, who counted a cache of steel products gifted by King Porus amongst his most prized possessions. Ever since Indian artisans have used the most primitive of facilities to fashion the most exquisite and innovative implements. But it was in the late 18th and 19th centuries that steel-making was developed as an industry, with factories set up in Birbhum in Bengal and Porto Novo on the Madras coast. When India secured independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, determined to develop a framework on which a self-reliant India could find its ground, set about augmenting production in private units with public sector integrated steel plants. In tune with times when steel consumption is deemed a prime indicator of the sinews of an economy.
As Rai profiles the many dimensions of steel and holds it as a mirror to daily existence, he evocatively captures the rhythm, nuances and quirks of Indian life. From the uprooted tree guards used as bed-frames to the characteristic art in akhadas. From museum-worthy railway carriages to shiny, new door-handles. From noisy guitar strings at college fests to rusty, winding staircases.