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Eyeing the Ashram by Shailaja Tripathi

by on September 11, 2012

[Photographs culled from an unbound and unpublished album of Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in Pondicherry are at the core of an upcoming exhibition.]

In Henri Cartier-Bresson’s life that remained eventful till the end, one chapter belonged to the photographer’s visit to Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in the ’50s. The father of modern photojournalism had of course been to India earlier, met Mahatma Gandhi and even covered his funeral. All of that remains well-known but his work on the Ashram remains comparatively less talked about. Bresson, it is said, had a knack for bearing witness to historic moments. So this time too, he was there shooting Sri Aurobindo, the revered yogi-philosopher-guru-poet, just a few months before his death.

The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in collaboration with Alliance Francaise de Delhi is presenting some masterly frames made during this engagement. The exhibition “Mastering the Lens: Before and After Cartier-Bresson in Pondicherry” will be accompanied by the launch of a publication collaboratively published by the Alkazi Collection, Mapin and the French Embassy. “Cartier-Bresson was fascinated by The Mother (Mirra Alfassa) and what was going on at the Ashram. He sought permission to photograph it and it was granted. He stayed there for 10 days. Now the photographs that he shot were compiled by The Mother into albums. The Mother bought negatives from him and brought out as many as 30 albums but only one album remains now,” says Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

The majority of the images to be showcased in this exhibition belong to this unbound and unpublished album of Cartier-Bresson. Besides taking the last pictures of Sri Aurobindo Ghose in the company of his spiritual companion, The Mother, the French photographer also recorded his observations and experiences. The exhibition also features these notes. Now, even though Alkazi Collection owns these photographs, the copyright remains with Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson which was managed by his wife Martine Franck, who passed away last month. The exhibition is dedicated to Franck, also a Magnum photographer, specialising in portraiture photography.

We have seen his work on earlier occasions but they have been more on the side of journalistic and famous images. This show seeks to bring to the fore a very different oeuvre of the lensman. Rahaab calls the show unprecedented because it deals with not just Cartier-Bresson but also the time before and after him in terms of photography and how European romanticism influenced the discipline here.

The show charts the development of photography in Pondicherry spanning the late 19th and early 20th Century. The work of European travellers in the 19th Century followed by Bresson’s work, its impact and assimilation into the modern photography practised by local photographers Tara Jauhar and Venkatesh Shirodkar among others are also dealt with in this endeavour. The annual photography festival, Salon Festival, which was run by the Ashram for almost 25 years also forms a crucial part of the journey and is documented here. One of the two photographers deputed by The Mother to manage the festival, now an 80-year-old, says Rahaab, will be present on the occasion.

The 90-page publication comprising antiquarian maps, vintage photographs of Pondicherry by unknown photographers and Bourne & Shepherd, gelatin silver prints of Cartier-Bresson of the Ashram, besides lead essay and text contributions, is a rich read.

(“Mastering the Lens: Before and After Cartier Bresson in Pondicherry” will open at the Alliance Francaise de Delhi on September 15 and will also travel to Puducherry, Chennai and Bangalore)

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