Friday, September 14, 2012

Hidden Cartier-Bresson images exhibited for first time

Friday, 14.09.2012
Hidden Cartier-Bresson images exhibited for first time
An image entitled "The Mother playing tennis" from the album ‘Sri Aurobindo

and His Ashram’ 
by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. ©AFP

Long-hidden photographs from French master Henri Cartier-Bresson are to be exhibited this weekend for the first time, shedding light on a little-known and controversial project of his in India, AFP reports.

Cartier-Bresson, whose striking photographs of the death of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi are a key part of his photographic legacy, also spent time documenting the ashram of guru Sri Aurobindo in 1950.

"It's unlike anything from Cartier-Bresson you've seen because it's a bit of an experimental album and an album he possibly didn't want to show people," the curator of the exhibition in New Delhi, Rahaab Allana, told AFP.

A pioneer in the art of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson combined an eye for design and proportion with a sense of history and the humorous. He died in 2004 aged 95.

Aurobindo was a one-time leader of political resistance to British rule in colonial times who dedicated the latter part of his life to spirituality and yoga at his retreat in the former French colony of Pondicherry.

At the invitation of Aurobindo and his partner, known as The Mother, Cartier-Bresson visited and took rare pictures of the couple together, documenting their life in the beach-side town on India's south-east coast.

When the pictures were published by the Magnum agency, however, an accompanying article was thought to have upset The Mother, who objected to the description of Aurobindo who died shortly after Cartier-Bresson's visit.

"When the material was publicised in Europe, the ashram received a certain amount of bad publicity," Allana explained, adding that there was a sarcastic reference to Aurobindo's self-proclaimed sense of divinity.

As a result, The Mother bought the negatives to the photographs for 3,000 dollars, printed 50 albums for the personal use of people connected with the ashram and thereafter kept the pictures from public sight.

This piece of Cartier-Bresson and 20th-century photographic history might have been lost but for the intervention of Delhi-based art collector Ebrahim Alkazi, the founder of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

He bought one of the printed albums when it came up for auction in London and set about trying to convince the Aurobindo ashram and the Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris to agree to an exhibition.

Both eventually consented, leading to the show which will open at the French cultural institute Alliance Francaise in the capital on Saturday and will travel to Pondicherry later in the year.

A total of 118 images from the Cartier-Bresson album, as well as hand-written notes on the project, will be displayed alongside other photographs from artists based in Pondicherry.

The previously unexhibited work "reveals the man and his practice as a whole, not his major edited-down photos which we've seen and we know," added Allana. "They are very different."

Travelling the world with his trusted Leica camera, Cartier-Bresson captured the birth of Communism in China and the liberation of Paris in 1944 "prowling the streets... determined to trap life, to preserve life in the act of living" as he put it.

The Mother, born as Mirra Alfassa in Paris, went on in the 1960s to found Auroville, an experimental township near Pondicherry that incorporates Aurobindo's teachings on human unity and spirituality.


Eyeing the Ashram


  • The Mother playing tennis.

In focus: Image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and The Mother at Darshan. Photos courtesy Alkazi Collection of Photography
In focus: Image by Henri Cartier-Bresson of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and The Mother at Darshan. Photos courtesy Alkazi Collection of Photography

The Mother giving flowers to a child.
The HinduThe Mother giving flowers to a child.

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)

French photographer’s work on Aurobindo on show
Photographs taken by Henri CartierBresson of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother but later suppressed are to be shown to the public for the first time in more than 60 years today .The French father of photojournalism had a deep fascination for India, where he took the last images of Mahatma Gandhi before his assassination in 1948.
Much less known is a project he undertook two years later to photograph another independence leader, Aurobindo Ghosh, who gave up politics for a spiritual path in what was then the French colony of Pondicherry, a seaside town in the south.
The philosopher-poet was 77 and had not been photographed for 30 years when Cartier-Bresson secured permission to visit his ashram in April 1950 from his companion, Mirra Alfassa, a Frenchwoman whom he and devotees called the Mother.
His notes at the time hint at a trying assignment in the guru's apartment. After he complained that the light was too low “the Mother told me that this is what they wanted from me, some indistinguishable shadow of themselves“.
When at last he coaxed the guru into his better-lit bedroom: “Sri Aurobindo did not wink an eye during the entire 10 minutes I was watching him.“
Tara Jauhar, who has published a detailed photo-book on the Mother, was 14 when Cartier-Bresson visited the Aurobindo Ashram. She had been living there since she was six. Her photographs are also part of the exhibition.
“We used to get to see Guru Aurobindo only for four times in a year.H e did not interact with anyone or talk to anyone.
In fact, when Cartier-Bresson came,he gave him exactly 10 minutes and kept his eyes shut throughout his visit and did not utter a word,” Jauhar told The Telegraph.
Aurobindo’s death that December ensured a scoop but a month later Cartier-Bresson was mortified to receive an angry letter from the Mother’s private secretary demanding that he return the negatives.
At issue was their use in a British magazine, Illustrated,t o accompany an “unspeakably vulgar” and “defamatory” article.The photographer later said that Robert Capa, cofounder of the Magnum agency, had persuaded him to do “something that I never did before in my life,and never did again... sell the negatives”.
The Mother recouped some of the $3,000 she paid for the set by making and selling 50 albums to devotees.
The rare record of life on the ashram in the final mo
nths of its guru’s life disappeared from public view and was rescued from oblivion only when an Indian art collector,Ebrahim Alkazi, happened upon one of the albums in a London auction in the 1990s.After lengthy negotiations, both the Aurobindo Ashram and the Cartier-Bresson Foundation in Paris agreed to an exhibition that opens today in the Alliance Francaise cultural institute in Delhi.
Some 118 images taken by Cartier-Bresson, who died in 2004 aged 95, will be shown alongside his notes and photos of the ashram by other artists.
Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, a confidant, said in 1990 that the Mother,w ho died in 1973, decided to grant CartierBresson’s request to photograph the guru to scotch rumours that he was dead but later came to regret her choice.
“One day the Mother alluded to the pictures taken by Cartier-Bresson. She said, ‘You know, had I allowed the ashram photographers to take the photos of Sri Aurobindo,I am quite sure they would have done a better job’.” The curator of the exhibition, Rahaab Allana, said: “It’s unlike anything from CartierBresson you’ve seen because it’s a bit of an experimental album and an album he possibly didn’t want to show people.” Alongside the pictures taken by Cartier-Bresson are his typed notes.T he exhibition will be on for two weeks.It will be open on all days,i ncluding Sundays.

Coutesy: "The Telegraph" Newspaper

Lens, ashram and Puducherry
Sep 17, 2012 - Moushumi Sharma

Cartier-Bresson must have experienced this very joy when he clicked the last pictures of Sri Aurobindo Ghose with his spiritual companion Mirra Alfassa — The Mother, during his visit to the Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry (then Pondicherry) in April 1950. And why not? Sir Aurobindo and The Mother had not been photographed in 30 years.
When Cartier-Bresson arrived in Pondicherry, with ceaseless pleadings he was granted permission to take pictures of The Mother. Ultimately, The Mother obtained permission for Cartier-Bresson to take photographs of Sri Aurobindo himself.
This unbound and unpublished album of Cartier-Bresson is at the core of the Alkazi Foundation’s exhibition, “Mastering the Lens: Before and After Cartier-Bresson in Pondicherry”. Currently underway at Alliance Francaise, New Delhi, the exhibition is an attempt to trace the development of photography in Pondicherry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Foundation has dedicated this exhibition to the late wife of Cartier-Bresson, Martine Frank, who passed away last month.
Featuring 60 photographic works, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue produced by the Alkazi Collection of Photography and Mapin publications, with support from the French embassy.
The French ambassador to India, François Richier, brings out the shared history of India and France in the catalogue. “Mutual fascination and reciprocal influences through commercial and cultural exchanges date back to the 17th century. It started with the first meeting between French explorers and the Indian maharajahs, and was to continue in the 20th century with the friendship forged between André Malraux, the French minister of Culture, and Jawaharlal Nehru. The exchange of ideas is most evident in Pondicherry, where the first French merchants had set foot, producing a unique cultural melting pot, which includes original architecture, a deep-rooted attachment to French language and many other legacies within the framework of arts,” he writes.
One of the quintessential exchanges took place when Cartier-Bresson met India’s most important philosopher of the 20th century, Sri Aurobindo, together with The Mother. The photographer and his wife, were among the privileged few to be admitted into the Ashram, where he took some of the photographs of Sri Aurobindo a few months before his death.
“For too long, these pictures had remained unheralded. But thanks to the work of the Alkazi Foundation, they are now available to an enlarging audience… these pictures of Cartier-Bresson are a beautiful meditation on what France and India, two different and ancient cultures, can learn from each other — primarily the universality of art and spirituality,” Mr Richier writes in the chapter, “Renewing Ties: Linking India and France Through the Art of Photography”.
The history of photography in India is fundamentally linked to the French invention of the medium in the 19th century. “Some of the early French photographers in India include Alex de la Grange and Oscar Malitte who captured not only architectural splendours, but also the humanity that steered India from a colony to an independent nation. It is to pay homage to them and their contemporaries that an archive of images from the 19th century becomes part of our collective legacy and heritage…This exhibition is an exploration of lesser-known, but extremely illuminating works from the visual archives of the Alkazi Collection,” says Ebrahim Alkazi, chairman, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts (AFA).
The centuries-old black and white photos bring alive the rusticity and beauty of Pondicherry, wonderfully capturing the social and political lives of its people during the days of the Raj. From important buildings like the Governor’s House to the post-office, from the Government Square Fountain to the Lighthouse, the viewer gets to witness the old-world charm of Pondicherry by just flipping through the pages of the catalogue.
Rahaab Allana, curator for the AFA, believes that in the life of any photographer, there is a moment of conditioning and maturing.
“The exercise here has made us aware of the fact that professional photographers were also tempering with light and shade, seeking to find a professional manner and voice through their images. If we gain an insight into Cartier-Bresson, it is that he was able to work in collaboration and that his early ventures as a photographer were aesthetically experimental and exploratory,” he says.
Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother give viewers a sense of the personal lives of the philosopher and his spiritual companion and their activities within the Ashram that show not only their dedication, but also their reception and responsibility to the cause of human understanding and creative development.
“Bresson meticulously pens his thoughts, occasionally jotting down segments of his conversations with the French-born leader of Auroville, commonly known as The Mother, who meanders in and out of his frames, ‘silent as an apparition’. Her ‘strong, kind and fascinating eyes’ prompt a personal, if not biographical, perspective on photography history,” explains Allana.
Six photographs show The Mother playing tennis, bringing out her playful side, while others capture the daily activities at the Ashram and also Sri Aurobindo’s room and bed, “with the inevitable tiger skin, which seems the companion of those aiming at spiritual development”, as Cartier-Bresson writes in his personal diary.
Another note from his diary reads: “Four times a year Sri Aurobindo puts in an appearance before his disciples. They are allowed to file past him, one by one, and many deposit flowers at his feet. He sits immovable for hours, in a sort of tabernacle with silk ornament. Next to him is The Mother, his counterpart in divinity, in long gold veils covering her forehead down to the eyebrows and looking like a Byzantine Empress.”

Courtesy: "The Asian Age" Newspaper

Ashram in Focus

In April 1950, Henri Cartier-Bresson shot some unforgettable images of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, on exhibition now in Delhi

Some months after founding Magnum Photos with Robert Capa, Werner Biscoe, David Seymour, Ernst Haas and George Rodger, Henri Cartier-Bresson came to the East. His photographs of Gandhi’s funeral in January 1948 won him an Overseas Press Club Award. On 13 April 1950, while he was in India, he wrote to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram from Madras. His letter was  addressed to the Ashram’s Secretary General, Philippe Barbier Saint-Hilaire, known as Pavitra. Bresson was already known as one of the world’s leading photographers in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
 Introducing himself as a professional  photographer associated with Magnum Photos, Cartier-Bresson asked for permission to attend thedarshan of 24 April 1950 and [put together a photographic report on life at the Ashram]. The next  day, 14 April, Cartier-Bresson was in Tiruvannamalai to see and photograph Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. That very day at 8.47 pm in the evening, Sri Ramana attainedmahasamadhi. Cartier-Bresson was on hand to photograph his funeral. Returning to Madras, he found a reply to his letter to the Ashram granting him permission to attend the darshan of the 24th and approving his request to create a photographic report [on the Ashram]. Cartier-Bresson arrived in Pondicherry on 23 April. According to his own account, he was introduced to the Mother by Francois Baron, the Commissarie (formerly Governor) of Pondicherry, which was still a French possession.
After a great deal of persuasion by the Mother, Sri Aurobindo agreed to be photographed by Bresson. One condition, however, was set down by the Mother—that they be surrounded by an ‘Artistic Shadow’, to reflect the atmosphere of this place of worship. In an audience with the Mother the following morning, Bresson firmly but gently explained that his photographs had so much artistic softness that not only would the pictures be a disappointment to the millions of faithful, but that his reputation as a portraitist was also at stake. The Mother finally allowed Cartier-Bresson to work in his own way. He had to promise, however, that he would submit all pictures for approval before publication. Alongside photographing Sri Aurobindo, Bresson also captured the Mother. The album shot by Bresson of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, the Ashram and its people turned out to be of significant importance not only to devotees but also to documentary photography. [It had been 30 years since Sri Aurobindo was last photographed, and he] passed away seven months after this photo-shoot.
 The Ashram made 50 copies of the Album containing a selection of these photos, signed by the Mother. The Mother had purchased all the negatives and prints from Bresson, paying professional charges of $3,000 to Magnum Photos Inc in 1951.
Extracted from Mastering the Lens: Before and After Cartier-Bresson in Pondicherry, published by Mapin Publishing Pvt Ltd and The Alkazi Collection of Photography. An exhibition by the same name will open at Alliance Francaise de Delhi on 15 September
Courtesy: "Open" Magazine

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