Land Beyond Time 

Photographs of India reveal Cartier-Bresson’s humane—and prescient—eye

Photographs of India reveal Cartier-Bresson’s humane—and prescient—eye

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson in India (Bulfinch Press, $35, 128 pp.)

Photographers are always drawn to India. The “vividness and swirl” of the culture, as one journalist puts it, are irresistible for the windows they offer on the human soul. Foreigners are always intrigued by the apparent juxtaposition of wealth and poverty—heavy industry in one quarter and manual labor in another, Internet cafes from which one can watch stray cows wandering the avenue. At the Republic Day parade in New Delhi a few years ago, the Soviet-made MiG warplanes of the Indian Air Force were borne through the streets on oxcarts. Such stark contrasts, while seeming absurd or surreal, reveal only the timelessness of Indian culture— polyphony, as opposed to progress.

Before his own photographic journeys through India, Henri Cartier-Bresson began his career as a surrealist photographer in France, focusing on the offbeat or incongruous in his seemingly casual street photography. Surrealism was in the air in the ’30s and ’40s, having spread from painting to the other arts, especially film. As a still photographer, Cartier-Bresson favored enigmatic details, backstage perspectives and views from askance, humor, irony, and paradox. One of his notable early images is of the coronation of George VI at London’s Trafalgar Square in 1938. Instead of the crown-on-the-head shot, he turned his Leica toward the crowd to capture a drunk asleep in a pile of newspapers below the ranks of well-dressed, seated spectators. Part of his rich photographic legacy is his phrase “the decisive moment,” which describes the compelling instant when the shutter must be tripped, when the eye catches the revealing detail.

When Cartier-Bresson left Europe for India in 1948, he landed in a nation newly independent from Britain and still reeling in the bloody aftermath of Partition, which had divided the subcontinent into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Though his style was not really suited to the epic—after two months of travels in America, he called the States “too vast” to photograph—it proved the perfect counterpoint to the tumult in which he found himself. Individual gestures, comic or tragic, could tell an epic story in the most personal terms.

India helped Cartier-Bresson shake off the surrealism label in favor of a better one—photojournalism. His work was shown to be playful and humane, revealing the telling details of the human condition. Nearly all of his photographs, in India and elsewhere, are of people engaged in some activity, at work or play, in joy or despair. India was a great humanizing influence for him, directing his puckish photographic gestures toward the discovery of beauty.

Henri Cartier-Bresson in India has been reprinted in paper after its hardback North American debut in 1988. The book originally served as the catalogue to an exhibit in Paris in 1985. The photographs represent some of the most enduring and important work of a man considered a master of modern photography. Cartier-Bresson said that India, along with Mexico, was one of the “havens of his heart.”

Cartier-Bresson began his work in the Punjab region, the flashpoint for much of the sectarian violence in which many thousands were killed. His photographs of refugee camps and overburdened trains do not depict the violence of the times—Margaret Bourke-White captured some of that for Life—but rather the daily rounds of people trying to salvage their lives. One of his best-known photographs shows a large group of men in the Kurukshetra refugee camp doing “simple exercises to drive away lethargy and despair.” The image is one of great emotion and energy. The men are all smiles as they, in a jumble, flap their arms about wildly. The sky above is vast and empty. In the foreground—and here is Cartier-Bresson’s signature touch—is a little pile of their shoes. Another image shows women drying laundry in trees. In these scenes of the refugee camp, Cartier-Bresson depicts the enormous scale of the suffering, but it is always secondary to simple human activity.

The book contains the photographer’s famous essay on the death of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948. There are scenes of Gandhi’s last fast at Birla House, giving interviews and dictating letters, followed by images of the Mahatma’s lying in state and the aftermath of the assassination. In all cases, the photos are not sensationalized but capture a sense of the nation’s loss in the faces of the mourning crowds. In a nighttime photograph of Nehru announcing Gandhi’s death, the prime minister appears grave and disillusioned. Cartier-Bresson has taken the picture just over the roof of a car; Nehru appears bathed in the lens flare from a light post and casts a blurred reflection in the shiny car top. Cartier-Bresson, one of the crowd, presents a strange and unsettling scene. The image is rough, its narrative unclear—what better way to frame a sense of personal loss and confusion against the backdrop of national tragedy?

Cartier-Bresson also photographed other parts of India that year, including Jaipur and Kashmir, where he shot his most famous image, that of Muslim women praying at dawn in Srinagar. Their backs to the camera, four veiled women face a distant mountain as one raises her arms in praise and reception.

His other photographs are dated 1950, 1966, and 1980, periods during which he worked in Ahmedabad, Allahabad, and some regions of southern India. His prescience in these photographs is remarkable. Ahmedabad was devastated by an earthquake in January of this year. Through Cartier-Bresson’s lens, the ancient city is clean and ordered, men watch street theater, and a little girl walks defiantly away from someone sleeping below a mural of a goddess in a lion-drawn chariot. No similar photos of Ahmedabad will be possible for a while. His scenes of Allahabad and the festival of the Kumbh Mela in 1966 preview this year’s grand event, which set the record for the largest single gathering of humanity (some 30 million bathers in the Ganges). When it turned into a celebrity circus, drawing the likes of Sharon Stone and Pierce Brosnan (and the image of a nude Mexican girl slathered in mud was picked up by the Western media), the organizers banned photography.

Cartier-Bresson’s great gift is the ability to reveal without exploitation, to show intimacy without intruding, to note paradox without cynicism. He never shied away from difficult views. The final image in the book shows two young men transporting the nosecone of a rocket on the seat of a bicycle in Kerala in 1966. The caption reads, “Preparing for a launch at the Thumba Rocket Equatorial Launching Station, housed in a former church.” It’s not a nuclear warhead, though certainly a harbinger of one. The image resonates anew in the wake of Pakistan and India’s recent nuclear tests. After some 30 years, the picture should have become an absurdist joke, but history has made it very, very real.

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