Astrologers, Refugees and Gandhi in Cartier-Bresson’s New York Show

The celebrated French photographer visited India several times and captured scenes of everyday life.

Gandhi dictates a message just after breaking his fast. Birla House, Delhi, 1948. Credit: ©Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

New York: Far from the stretch of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue known as the ‘Museum Mile’ – where New York’s grandest, Western-art museums squat – is a little gem, the Rubin Museum. Himalayan art, donated by the wealthy Rubins, forms this museum’s core collection. In open circular galleries, surrounding the central spiral staircase that connects its seven floors, almost mystically, it usually hosts colourful Oriental shows – Jain art, Tibetan tangkas, Buddhist sculptures, Pahari paintings—and highly-regarded performance events related to Asian arts. This week, in a striking departure, its latest offering, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame’, is totally modern and all black-and-white, consisting of 69 stunning photographs chronicling mid-20th century India.

French photographer, Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) first came to India in 1947 to photograph Mahatma Gandhi during his internationally publicised fast, protesting post-partition Hindu-Muslim violence. Gandhi agreed to meet him because, unlike his “torturer,” Margaret Bourke-White (Life magazine’s famed war photographer, also documenting Gandhi), Cartier-Bresson never used flash.

At their meeting, Gandhi asked about Cartier-Bresson’s picture of a hearse and, learning what it was, lamented, “Death, death, death, death,” ironically unaware that, within hours, he himself would be assassinated. No photographer was present at that fateful prayer meeting to record the shooting. But upon hearing the news, Cartier-Bresson rushed over to Birla House where “All night the crowds rushed into the garden…and pressed forward to see him,” he later recalled. “I managed to reach one window, greasy from the pressure of many foreheads, and polished with my elbow a place big enough for the lens of my camera.” He was permitted into the bedroom where Gandhi’s body lay because, respecting the mourners’ privacy, he did not use flash – despite the evening’s fading light. (Bourke-White’s huge camera, flash and film, were snatched away by angry mourners who did not allow her to photograph them.) Those deeply moving, exclusive close-ups of the aftermath, enabled by Cartier-Bresson’s unobtrusive little camera, ran in Life, catapulting him to international fame.

Street photographer in the old city. Delhi, 1966. Credit: ©Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Some of those remarkably un-sensational pictures form the heart of this exhibit and are surrounded by others, shot on several subsequent visits. Living in Ahmedabad for three years, Cartier-Bresson criss-crossed the subcontinent, recording street life and ordinary people, religious and artistic communities (Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tamil Nadu, kathakali dancers in Kerala), political landscapes in Kashmir, architecture in Ahmedabad’s pols (narrow alleys), its old havelis and, a dynamic, roof-top kite-flying picture – without showing a single kite!

Opening the show, however, are dramatic portrayals of Gandhi’s chief lieutenants: the popular, near-iconic photo of Jawaharlal Nehru, bent over laughing, with the Mountbattens; and, a rare, stereotype-shattering portrait of India’s grim “Iron man,” Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, caught smiling widely. In a glass case nearby are an Indian government-issued press pass and the tiny, 35 mm Leica camera that Cartier-Bresson used, with fast lenses, as he disappeared into crowds quietly, unobtrusively, to capture sensitive, revealing shots. In other cases are letters detailing his experiences to “Cher Papa et chere Maman” in Paris.

Muslim refugee train from Delhi to Lahore, Pakistan, passing through Kuinkshaha station, Kuinkshaha, North India, India, 1947. Credit: ©Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

The exhibit is not arranged chronologically and though it offers some thematic groupings, most pictures are randomly hung, organised neither by location nor subject. Thus, there are witty street pictures of an astrologer’s shop (a perennial Western fascination), and a bazaar photographer’s melodramatically back-dropped studio – perhaps an “in” joke? – inexplicably followed by moving pictures of the partition: the Kurukshetra camp with 300,000 Hindu refugees, a Delhi-Lahore train overflowing with Muslim migrants. Typically, Cartier-Bresson shows not the Kurukshetra multitudes but references them obliquely through the camp’s innumerable tents, its laundry fluttering on trees, its residents exercising. Much further in the show is a smug, smiling money-lender, sitting with piles of coins – why was this not nearer the photographer and astrologer? Surely, they are all examples of Cartier-Bresson’s renowned “street photography,” his depiction of life in India, shown through professions that were unique from a Western perspective.

In the central section of the show, pictures of Gandhi’s everyday life – breaking his fast, visiting a Muslim shrine, dictating a note – are incongruously preceded by the more compelling, climactic funeral photos: a stunning picture of a visibly grieving Nehru, the funeral pyre at the “Sumna (sic?) river,” mourners precariously balanced on treetops, weeping masses throwing flowers at the train carrying Gandhiji’s ashes. So heart-rending are these depictions of a traumatised nation in deepest grief that, even today, one relives the tragedy through the photographer’s eye. Immortalised by Life, these obituary pictures ran alongside those of Bourke-White, on special assignment to cover Gandhi.

Returning to India to photograph Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, Cartier-Bresson ended up covering the death and funeral of the saint. A picture of the Maharshi, staring straight into the camera, surprises with a life-size portrait of Gandhiji hanging behind his sick bed. Next, the dead saint, sitting upright before his burial – since “realised” souls are buried, not cremated, an interesting factoid for a Frenchman.

Kathakali dance drama. A guru teaches the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata Cheruthuruthi, Kerala, India 1950. Credit: ©Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Another, more egalitarian, Gallic perspective is evidenced in the photographs of two princes – Baroda and Baria – that follow. The playboy Maharaja of Baroda celebrates his 39th birthday, Baria his wedding, both with obscene displays of wealth. The photogenic Maharani Shantadevi, posing in Baroda’s opulent Laxmi Vilas palace, dons a garland of humongous diamonds that once belonged to Napoleon; an elephant fight is captured in a photo evoking the elegance of a Mughal painting; the king is in formal regalia, celebratory laddoos are distributed to jostling crowds, hands outstretched. Not so subtle echoes of “let them eat cake” here?

Cartier-Bresson hailed from a wealthy haute-bourgeois family, began his career as a painter in the 1920s and worked as an assistant – and actor – for legendary filmmaker Jean Renoir in the 1930s. After making an anti-fascist documentary in Spain, he was captured by Germans and spent three years in prisoner-of-war camps. Then, in 1947, he co-founded the co-operative photo agency Magnum, with war photographer Robert Capa, and came to India soon after. (This exhibition is a celebration of Magnum’s 70th anniversary.)

For his first photo credit, Cartier-Bresson dropped his double-barreled surname for the modest “Cartier.” That is how Satyajit Ray discovered him “way back in the 1930s.” When a Museum of Modern Art catalogue revealed the photographer’s real identity, Ray said, “I became an instant and lifelong aficionado…of the compelling, mysterious and memorable quality [of his photographs], as distinctive and as instantly recognisable as the work of any great painter. Here was a new way of looking at things.” Ray praised his “palpable humanism,” and called Cartier-Bresson “the greatest photographer of our time.” High praise from a filmmaker who used the camera just as memorably and whose style, like the photographer’s, was deeply influenced by their shared mentor, Jean Renoir.