Henri Cartier-Bresson’s magnificent, inimitable India on show at the Rubin Museum of Art

By Sujeet Rajan, Posted On : May 4, 2017 5:46 pm

NEW YORK: Henri Cartier-Bresson traveled to India five times, starting from 1947, as part of a three-year stay in Asia, after he co-founded the internationally renowned cooperative photographic agency Magnum Photos. Over the course of two decades, he captured through his lens India’s people – the rich and the famous, the poor, marginalized and ostracized; momentous political and social occasions, like arguably nobody else has ever done.

Now, from his vast oeuvre, 69 remarkable photos are on exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, entitled ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full-Frame’, through September 4, 2017.

The exhibition makes one thing amply clear: Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was as much at ease in delineating India’s mind-boggling diversity and crowds, its humongous, proud culture, stark poverty and pathos – without his subjects losing dignity, as in the company of such illustrious men and women as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Edwina Mountbatten, the Maharani of Baroda – who looks resplendent in diamonds that once belonged to Napoleon, and Ramana Maharshi, capturing some startling private moments.

The exhibition, curated by Beth Citron, also showcases some artifacts, among which is an original cutting of a yellowed, faded, news story from Bharat Jyoti newspaper, dated February 22, 1948. Headlined ‘Photo as Pure Art,’ the piece on Cartier-Bresson’s first exhibition in India notes what the New York Times had written about his works: ‘One wonders how Cartier-Bresson always manages to be around when things are happening and the setting always works out right for him’.

That factor, of Cartier-Bresson being around ‘when things are happening’ is demonstrated through some of the works in the exhibition at the Rubin, including photos of Mahatma Gandhi in his final days, a shaken and shocked looking Nehru the day after Gandhi died, the throng of crowds, stretching, pulling at a train that transport the Mahatma’s ashes, funeral at the banks of the Sumna river in Delhi. It was these very photos of Gandhi’s last days and the immediate aftermath, that catapulted Cartier-Bresson into the annals of the great photographers of his time. There are also photos of refugees fleeing India to Pakistan on a train, a camp in Kurukshetra sheltering refugees who became victims of the partition.

There is one photo of a mischievous looking Nehru and Lady Mountbatten – who history has recorded to be lovers – sharing a private moment, having a quiet laugh standing side-by-side, with a disinterested-looking Lord Mountbatten only steps ahead, probably unaware of the intricacies of the mirth behind him. The photo speaks volumes of Cartier-Bresson’s keen insight into India’s politics.

Like with Gandhi, Cartier-Bresson spent a considerable time by the side of sage Ramana Maharshi, during his final days when he lay dying of cancer at his ashram. The photos of the revered sage lying in bed, bald with the ravages of the disease; made to sit upright after his death, buried in that same position, and not cremated as per tradition, are true gems. A peacock, which is a gift from a king to the sage, swirling and dancing at the ashram, as Maharshi lay dying, is memorable for its rich symbolism.

Cartier-Bresson traveled the length and breadth of India over the course of his five trips. There are photos of people in their rural environs in Kashmir, Orissa, Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, among others. A photo of a poor fisherman with his young son hanging on to him in Puri; a young man helping load a basket on the head of a woman who looks old to be his great grandmother but perhaps needs to keep working to make ends meet, in Trivandrum; a man walking on a street in Udaipur with what looks a sandstorm swirling in the background, makes one forget the high rises of Manhattan outside the walls of the museum, reflect upon India brimming with generations of inconsolable poverty.

There are two photos in the exhibition that show Cartier-Bresson’s sagacity of India’s potential: both are from 1966 – one of workers at the nuclear power station in Trombay. In the ethereal looking photo, workers seem to be laboring outside a facility that looks like a marooned spaceship, with a palm tree growing right from the middle of its inverted dome. The other photo is from the Thumba space station in Kerala, which interestingly was operating from within the confines of a church.

Cartier-Bresson, is most renowned for his humanist street photography. It’s easy to see why. His photos often juxtapose two different worlds, the modern and the arcane, making them collide inadvertently, bringing the dichotomy of India itself.

There are some interesting specimens of Cartier-Bresson’s photos of India’s streets: in one, a shop has an astrologer and a shopkeeper stare into the camera. A photo of a deity and some skulls can be seen in the background. A signboard in what is supposed to be English, but is gibberish, makes the scene even more ludicrous, but vastly more interesting. One thing is apparent though: in that photo Cartier-Bresson has cleverly shown the conundrum of India’s rigid way of looking at the world through its mysticism and rituals, and the way the West stares at India.

A couple of other photos expose worlds within worlds: the age-old ‘jugaad’ also amply shown: a photographer in Old Delhi is resting next to his backdrop of a ‘palace’ on a wall, a colorful cloth stuck on the wall, with a wall next to it revealing the real neighborhood – bare, stripped down, broken, remnants of torn posters.

This is one of those rare exhibitions that after one sees it, one feels lucky to having done so. Most of the photos leave indelible impressions.

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