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LOOKING BACK

Imaging India

`Middleagespread', as the title suggests, was a photo-exhibition to present personalised views of the passage of time and space in India's 57 years of independence. MADHU JAIN reviews the show which was on in Delhi recently.

HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON/IGNCA

Crowds jostling to pay homage to the Mahatma's ashes, 1948.

IT's homage by accident. A few days into the exhibition, intriguingly titled "Middleagespread-Imaging India 1947-2004" (July 28 to August 18, 2004), legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson died in the south of France on August 3, 2004.

In this exhibition of black and white photographs that included the works of 11 photographers, the world got to analyse Cartier-Bresson and his eloquently haunting images. It was cogently curated by Gayatri Sinha and shown at the National Museum in New Delhi.

Here were images that caught the growing pangs of a newborn nation — caesarian section you could say — and captured collective grief over Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. In the age of the hero, Cartier-Bresson focused on the common man — the icon-in-the-making, and when the heroic was outside the frame. It was the gaze of ordinary men and women witnessing history as it is happens, that seemed to interest the late French photographer.

India is in a late, rather flabby middle age after that "tryst with destiny" 57 years ago. The photographic images tracked this passage of time in a country, recording both its traumas and episodes of high drama, as well as those little moments that constitute the everdayness of life, through the lens of different photographers. The fact that they were all in black and white enhanced their integrity. While the spotlight was on the heroes of the country and its marginalised sections, the purpose of this exercise was not to document the history of post-independence India. Nor is it, as Sinha points out in the book that accompanied the exhibition, an attempt to give a brief history of Indian photography.

"The curatorial intention in this exhibition is to present essentially personalised views of the passage of time and space in Indian life, through brief photo essays. A country as complex as India affords multiple visual histories. My engagement with these images has been an affirmative and personal journey of the immense power of the photograph to move, to beguile and to ultimately restore."

Since "multiple visual histories" require multiple genres for their retelling, the curator had included the images from photojournalism to constructed photographs and candid shots and portraits.

Nuggets of history

Aptly, the exhibition began with the photographs of a Press Information Bureau (PIB) photographer, Romesh Dutt Chopra, who just happened to be there: Mahatma Gandhi holding his own, relaxed as he stood between towering Lord and Lady Mountbatten in 1947; the Mahatma next to Rabindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan in 1940, yet the body language of both men as captured by the camera made them appear miles apart in thought and sensibility; Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. K.S. Radhakrishnan — both with caps on their heads — seriously contemplating a cricket pitch. These were special, off guard moments for which there are no retakes.

A PIB photographer is usually anonymous — a bit like the Unknown Soldier. Perhaps it is his very anonymity, that ability to melt into the background that helps him capture such candid moments on camera. Such photographers are seldom mentioned in the same breath as the kings in the world of photography. Among the nuggets of Chopra's images was the photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru during the former American First Lady's visit to India in 1962. Apparently, frightened by a snake that has slithered out of the snake charmer's basket, she (dressed in Jodhpurs) appears to have rushed into the arms of a clearly amused Pandit Nehru.

Cartier-Bresson's images

Cartier-Bresson, with his 35-mm Leica, had the uncanny of "being there" at one of the most decisive moments in India's history. He came to India with first wife Ratna Mohini in September 1947, and first went to Bombay later accompanying Lady Mountbatten to the refugee camps in Kurukshetra. He rarely wrote about his work but usually jotted down notes at Magnum (the photo agency he founded with a group of photographers) when he returned from his travels. And in them he mentions the fact that he headed for Delhi when he heard that Gandhiji was fasting to protest growing communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Cartier-Bresson photographed Gandhiji breaking his fast, but only met him on the fatal afternoon of January 30 1948. In his notes he mentions Gandhiji looking through a book of his photographs published by the Museum of the Modern Art in New York.

"He turned the pages slowly and in silence until he came across an image and asked me what it was about. It is a photo of Paul Claudel, a Catholic poet who is furtively looking at a passing hearse I told him. `Death, death, death' were the only words he uttered before continuing to look at my photograph. Half an hour later ... he was assassinated."

While the international and Indian press captured the burning pyre of the Mahatma or the flower-decked body being taken in procession, Cartier-Bresson captured the palpable and collective grief of the ordinary population. Among the really moving images is the bewildered expression of Gandhiji's secretary as the flames rise to engulf the pyre: his world, like that of most others, has just fallen apart. Cartier-Bresson's ever lengthening shadow falls on successive generations of photographers, elsewhere and in India as well.

S. Paul's spectacular images have imbibed his lyricism as well as his concern for the man in the street, the onlooker. For instance, Paul's photograph of the patients and the staff of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences peering out of the hundreds of windows, which look like slits, at the ambulance with the body of the assassinated Indira Gandhi captured the collective shock of the tragedy. We don't see her body or the ground — just the sense of those watching a moment in history.

Paul's photograph of two old men sitting on a bench in Simla in 1952, seemingly lost in their separate worlds, was redolent of the passing of an era.

One of the men was the perfect Westernised gentleman: a suit, a hat and a walking stick by his side — a remnant of the Raj. At the other end of the bench sat a man in a kurta and shawl: he had a turban and a drooping white moustache. The empty bench space between them emphasised the metaphorical distance between the two and the worlds they symbolised.

Raghu Rai is Paul's younger brother, and, like him, a painterly photographer who seeks the lyrical in the Quotidian. Rai is also a photojournalist — present at the right time in the right place. He is, in a sense, a pictorial biographer: his images of Indira Gandhi in the exhibition also explored the persona behind the power. Rai has the ability to get under the skin of his protagonists, teasing out their inner compulsions. He did the same with the moods of the river (images of boatmen on the Hooghly and the cremation ghat in Kolkata) or the desert (Rajasthan) — or even a city. The photograph of a not-so-young couple sharing a moment of intimacy ("Romancing on the roof top") with the city of Kolkata sprawled below them was a pictorial paean to romance.

The late Kishor Parekh's stark and moving images of the Bangladesh war from his series titled "Bangladesh — A Brutal Birth" brought home, poignantly, the futility of war. As Sinha succinctly puts it: "Soldiers are seen not in acts of heroism but as both victims and perpetrators. Even when the guns are silent, the images resonate with the silence of women and children, the worst victims of barbarity."

With her telling images, Sheba Chhachi explored the marginalisation of women and the notions of identity. The cast of her characters included the dispossessed and ascetic. They were not mere subjects caught on the off chance by a camera, but were engaged with the photographer.

Dayanita Singh's was a unique and more personalised tracking of time and the rites of passage. With Singh's images in this show you moved indoors, and she has recorded moments in the life of her subject, Samira Chopra over 22 years — documenting thus three generations. As Sinha writes: "In the continually changing family mise en scene, ties of kinship, urbanism, and modernity appear in a microcosm."

The exhibition shifted gear with the works of Ketaki Sheth, Ram Rahman, Rajesh Vora and Swapan Parekh. We now entered the world of the streets and social salons (Rahman); Bollywood (Sheth's remarkable images of the other side of the world of make-believe — a view from the green room); Swapan Parekh's engagement and play with the world of advertising; and, finally Vora's fascinating exploration of the tawdry side of the beauty business and the obsessive desire to be famous. From images of Gandhiji and his dreams of a free nation, to images of today's quest for landing on Page 3 — the exhibition followed a long trajectory.

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