Henri Cartier-Bresson’s India in Full Frame

A collection of pictures encapsulates the iconic photographer’s enduring fascination with India.


In January 1948 Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famed photojournalist, was on an assignment in India to cover Mahatma Gandhi’s hunger strike to stop the violence between Hindus and Muslims that had erupted following the partition of India less than six months earlier. Cartier-Bresson did photograph Gandhi breaking his fast, but he didn’t have the slightest idea of what was soon to follow. In less than twenty minutes after he last photographed him, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu militant.

Cartier-Bresson’s brief interaction with Gandhi and the tragic turn of events that followed led to some of the most poignant and lasting images of the final hours of Gandhi’s life and the collective pain of a grieving nation. These images are part of a retrospective of 69 of Cartier-Bresson’s best works on India taken over four decades at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

The retrospective at Rubin is organized around three themes: the great migration that followed India’s partition, Gandhi’s death and the nation’s mourning and the waning Indian royalty. Interspersed are real life images of ordinary Indians from all walks of life. Altogether the exhibit offers a masterful kaleidoscope of a society in transition with all its contrasts and contradictions.

Friday Prayer, Mahdum Shah Ziarat Mosque, Srinagar, Kashmir, 1948. Photo: © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of fleeing refugees from both India and Pakistan could easily be mistaken for that of migrants fleeing present-day conflict zones in various parts of the world. His photos of tents housing 300,000 refugees in Kurukshetra outside Delhi, or that of a train overflowing with Lahore-bound refugees resonate with the universal plight of the uprooted. As India and Pakistan celebrated their 70th birthdays in August, these pictures serve as a vivid reminder of the staggering cost of partitioning India along religious lines. When the dust finally settled, up to 17 million people were displaced and 1 million killed in sectarian violence.

But Cartier-Bresson had also witnessed how Europe emerged from the ashes of two world wars. His images of the dispossessed are also laced with hope. His shot of refugees participating in a bhangra dance (a folk dance popular in northern India) at the Kurukshetra camp to overcome boredom and ennui is a celebration of human spirit and resiliency against unimaginable tragedy.

The pictures of migration are followed by those of Gandhi’s death and the subsequent outpouring of national grief. The shock and despair of a new nation are captured in the ashen face of Gandhi’s secretary framed against the flames of his funeral pyre, in Prime Minister Nehru’s announcement of Gandhi’s death, in the throngs of mourners trying to get a last glimpse of their deceased leader and in the scattering of his ashes in the Ganges.

But it’s in the pictures of ordinary scenes and daily lives of Indians that one gets a sense of the pulse of perennial India. The picture of a street photographer taking a nap while his camera sits atop its stand forlornly at a distance has a time-stands-still quality about it that defies all norms of movement and motion and time and space that we associate with modern life. In the picture, the street photographer’s camera becomes the silent witness to the stillness around instead of documenting it.

One of the most telling pictures is that of several Kashmiri Muslim women offering their prayers facing the rising sun, with raised hands and exposed faces. The photo taken from behind these women fully respects their privacy, yet has a profoundly empowering quality. It seems to capture and celebrate a rare moment when these women are willingly expressing their freedom of how and where to pray.

One photo that I was particularly intrigued by is that of Nehru with the Mountbattens on the steps of the Viceroy’s House taken shortly after the transfer of power in 1948. In the picture, Nehru, generally a Harrow and Cambridge educated stoic figure, seems to let himself loose on a banter or a joke with Edwina Mountbatten, with her husband Lord Mountbatten looking the other way. It’s the genius of Cartier-Bresson that in a split second he was able to capture the special chemistry between Edwina and Nehru decades before it was confirmed by the Mountbattens’ own daughter Pamela in a memoir. Nehru’s love letters lay beside Edwina’s bed when she died unexpectedly in Hong Kong in 1960.

Cartier-Bresson’s photos of Indian royalty are equally introspective. There is the picture of food being distributed to the poor during Maharaja of Baroda’s birthday projecting benevolent royalty. Yet, on the same occasion, there is also picture of the Maharaja’s wife checking against a mirror how the necklace studded with diamonds once belonging to Napoleon looked on her. Cartier-Bresson was keenly aware that in democratic India the days of royalty were numbered. One could view his image of the Maharani with her necklace as the last display of vanity against the forces of inevitable change.

One unmistakable power of Cartier-Bresson’s India pictures is that they seem to speak to you. Perhaps their realism is heightened by their black and white composition without any cropping, as well as the absence of any use of flash or artificial light for special effects. The Leica camera Cartier-Bresson used to take his India pictures is on display at the exhibit as well.

It’s Cartier-Bresson’s uncompromising style of projecting the integrity of his images that directly influenced the works of many Indian photographers and most significantly that of India’s iconic film maker Satyajit Ray. Ray openly acknowledged his indebtedness to Cartier-Bresson. He used Cartier Bresson’s pictures to instruct his cameraman to bring about similar application of natural light and editing on the camera itself (versus the darkroom) in the making of the world renowned

Henri Cartier-Bresson Photo: Magnum Photos.

Cartier-Bresson’s India images invariably invite comparison with those of Margaret Bourke-White, the famous American photographer who also left behind indelible images of Gandhi (including the famous one of Gandhi at the spinning wheel) and searing pictures of dislocation and carnage that accompanied the partitioning of India. She was memorialized in the film Gandhi in which Candice Bergen played her role as Gandhi’s photographer.

But although they dealt with similar themes, Cartier-Bresson and Magaret Bourke-White also differed significantly in their philosophical and technical approaches to photography. Bourke-White had a no-holds-barred approach to photography that didn’t shy away from capturing stunning but disturbing images of corpses lying with open eyes, dead bodies lying pile high, or the mournful expression of a famine-starved peasant woman. In contrast, Cartier-Bresson’s images display significant subtlety and sensitivity to their subject matters.

These differences in dealing with subject matters played out immediately after Gandhi’s assassination. Upon hearing that Gandhi had been shot fatally, both Cartier-Bresson and Bourke-White raced to the Birla House where Gandhi’s body laid among mourners. As she arrived on the scene, Bourke-White took shots of lifeless Gandhi in repose with a flash. Gandhi’s friends and family members perceived this as intrusive and Bourke-White was denied permission to film. This provided Cartier-Bresson, who only used natural light, with a rite of passage to capture a “decisive moment” in the new nation’s history. He went on to sensitively film Gandhi’s body lying covered in flowers and the gathering of mourners in the nearby courtyard. Everything was captured from a distance in keeping with the mournful state of the occasion. This sensitivity to the surrounding actually helped to heighten the somberness of the atmosphere.

Overall what makes Cartier-Bresson’s photos so authentic and compelling is that they are infused with the sensibility that an honest portrayal of a society can only be done from inside out, not outside in.

“Once I have arrived in a new country, I feel almost like settling down there so as to live on proper terms with the country,” he was reported to have said. His works are indeed a great expression of Cartier-Bresson’s coming to “proper terms” with India.

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