Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of Nehruvian India in New York
Henri Cartier-Bresson's 1947 India visit marked the beginning of his best photojournalistic work. An ongoing exhibition at New York's Rubin Museum of Art showcases his oeuvre
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten sharing a private joke at Government House in Delhi (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) reflects the French photographer’s rather deft execution of this decisive moment. But whether one credits the decisive moment or not, it is important to note the access that Cartier-Bresson enjoyed in India, one which played a significant role in creating those moments in his images.
The exhibition Henri Cartier-Bresson: India In Full-Frame, on view at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, until 4 September, is presenting 69 images from the photographer’s travels here (he first arrived a month after independence in 1947). The exhibition is a joint effort, in collaboration with Magnum Photos, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary, and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation.
Even today, most people are unaware of how Cartier-Bresson gained access to the personal spaces of India’s political top brass. His then wife, Ratna Mohini, was a friend of Dorothy Norman, an American writer, photographer and editor committed to gathering support in the US for India’s freedom struggle. Norman, in turn, was close to Nehru’s youngest sister, Krishna Hutheesing, and that is how Cartier-Bresson found himself in the middle of India’s political transition.
In 1947, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, held a major retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’s surrealist photographs. And even though he never formally associated himself with the movement, photographer and friend Robert Capa warned him about being labelled “a surrealist photographer". The story goes that it was at the MoMA restaurant a few months later that Capa and friends founded Magnum Photos over a generous bottle of champagne, which gave the agency its name. Cartier-Bresson, assigned Asia, left for India with his wife.
At the Rubin Museum of Art exhibit, the 69 photographs on display are said to be images Cartier-Bresson had selected before his death in 2004. “There is a rhythm to the selection of photos, but I still have many unanswered questions about them that I would have loved to ask!" says Beth Citron, curator, modern and contemporary art, at the museum, over email.
Cartier-Bresson photographed Mahatma Gandhi hours before his assassination. Fourteen photographs are, in fact, dedicated to Gandhi and the events around his cremation, illustrating his nuanced narrative. The photograph of people around Gandhi’s body in his bedroom is as telling of the leader’s presence (in absence) as is the photograph where, just months before, Gandhi is seen leaving a shrine in Mehrauli, flanked by two women.
Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of India are a noticeable departure from his earlier work. There’s a greater emphasis on events of social and political significance, his decisive moment drawing more from circumstance than the other way round. He was known for form and aesthetics, but these took a bit of a back seat in his India images. The cubist influence on his earlier work makes room for news reportage. His intent was amply clear, though many imagined that his artistic style was out of form in India. “The Gandhi photographs helped to catapult Cartier-Bresson to fame as a photojournalist, and are certainly among the most ‘newsworthy’ bodies of his work," says Citron.
The photographer visited India six times from 1947 and one can see the ease of familiarity in his later photographs, especially those from the 1966 trip. His photographs from Udaipur and Ahmedabad, as well as one particular image where workers can be seen digging in a barren landscape with just a giant satellite dish and a single palm tree—the site of the nuclear power station in Trombay (in Mumbai)—rely on an old, familiar aesthetic and the need to distance oneself from the rigour of spot news.
They also suggest an understanding of India’s changing social landscape. From the serene and powerful image of several women outside a mosque in Srinagar in 1948 (they were not allowed inside), to the poetic visual of women drying their saris in the sun in Ahmedabad in 1966, Cartier-Bresson’s abiding interest in daily life rituals and practices is evident.
So admired was his way of seeing that it inspired a generation of iconic Indian photographers, including Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh, who met him during his 1966 trip. Rai’s famous panoramic image from 1975, of villagers caught in a dust storm created by a VIP’s helicopter, seems like unspoken homage to Cartier-Bresson’s 1947 image of a refugee camp in Kurukshetra, where the men are exercising but appear more like they’re being hustled.
For Cartier-Bresson also photographed refugee camps extensively. An image of washed clothes hung on trees under which refugee tents have been set up is a tragic, yet poetic, visual of a massive sociopolitical crisis in India and Pakistan’s shared history.
“It is one of Cartier-Bresson’s strengths as a photographer that he found humanity in nearly every situation. Still, the images he made at the Kurukshetra refugee camp in late 1947 and in Kashmir in the summer of 1948 are exceptional in their intermingling of daily life with monumentality—of conflict with aesthetics. And yes, history does seem close at hand in relation to India’s ongoing tensions with Pakistan as well as the tragedy of the refugee crisis across Europe and the Middle East," says Citron, when asked about the nature of his visual reportage in relation to the human crises now.
And in the 70th year of India’s independence as well as Magnum Photos’ founding, it is only apt that this be the decisive show from Cartier-Bresson’s repertoire.