In 2011, The Historical Society of French India (La Société d’Histoire de l’Inde Française) was a hundred years old. It was founded by the French governor of Pondicherry, Alfred Martineau, with the intent of bringing together archival papers dealing with this French enclave. Among Martineau’s significant finds was the forgotten Les Mémoires de François Martin (The Memoirs of François Martin), discovered among papers stored at the national archives in Paris. Martin founded Pondicherry in 1674, became its first governor-general and set up the French East India Company; his writings have been translated by scholar Lotika Varadarajan as India in the 17th Century, Social, Economic and Political: Memoirs of François Martin, 1670-1694. It was not as though the French enjoyed uninterrupted supremacy in the area until it became a Union territory of independent India in 1963. Trade based on the fine cloth woven from the cotton in the hinterland was a major attraction; initial settlers were the Portuguese in 1521, followed by the Danes, the Dutch and then following a brief spell under the British, Pondicherry was finally ceded to the French in 1826.
With a past so intermeshed with different cultural and sub-cultural influences, Pondicherry could hardly be anything but a space of vibrant growth. The town was divided into the European section and the larger Indian part, the two being separated by a canal. In no time, European influences led to a unique synergy in architectural styles, cultural practices and cuisines. By the final decades of the 19th century, photography arrived in the region, and a recent publication of the Alkazi collection of photography (Mastering the Lens — Before and After Cartier-Bresson in Pondicherry) carries some early images of a broad street in Karical (present day Karaikal, within the Union territory of Pondicherry and a bit more than a hundred kilometres from the city), of various imposing buildings such as Government House, Messages Maritime (post office) and others. Apart from those taken by the Bourne & Shepherd stable, there are some striking landscape format images attributed to a C. Moyne, who photographed panoramas as well as the lighthouse, temples and the cathedral.
While it did not have a studio in Madras, the management of Bourne & Shepherd possibly found it worthwhile to send a team to the town to photograph a little beyond the “Views of India” images: with studios in Calcutta, Simla and Bombay, it was perhaps not too difficult to send skilled photographers with attendant staff, heavy equipment and a clear mandate to photograph the somewhat more unusual in a region beyond the purview of the raj. The present volume carries two most fascinating photographs by what was then the leading studio — one of the coastline from the sea and another of the unique mode of transportation, the Railka (photograph), also known as “La Pondicherienne”, the “push push or street conveyance”. The title of the coastline image reads, “Pondicherry from the Sea” and in the foreground are small rowing boats of the kind that ferried passengers from bigger liners to the shore. It is possible that the present image was taken by one such boat on a calm day.
Of far greater interest is the image of the Railka; with a seat like a rickshaw and a fringed canopy, it had four wheels, a comfortable seat not unlike that of a brougham and a most unusual feature of a steering apparatus that was operated by the passenger. As it was pushed from the back, there clearly had to be communication between the passenger and the “pushers”, with instructions perhaps on the route to be taken, as well as fine tuning on speed and so on. All this, of course, is in the realm of conjecture, but a vehicle of this kind can hardly not lead to thoughts on how cultures meld, borrow and reject even at the level of transportation. Architecture, particularly domestic architecture, became the most visible and dominant example of interface between different styles. French homes had high ceilings, arched doorways, and if more than one storey, vaulted staircases. These occupied pride of place along the coast and near Government House. Though Tamil homes retained their own distinctive features with a public veranda along the street (thalvaram) and the thinnai, a semi-private veranda with seating areas for visitors who were not usually to be invited into the inner quarters, there were homes that also adopted aspects of French architecture; arched doorways and fluted pilasters were particularly striking features of this peculiar Franco-Tamil architectural style.
It was to this town that Cambridge-educated Aurobindo Ghose came in 1910, having given up politics following his exoneration in the Alipur bomb case. For the next 40 years he devoted himself to spiritual practice and yoga; in 1926, with Mirra Alfassa, whom he named the Mother, he established Aurobindo Ashram. Their spiritual collaboration attracted many devotees and with the Mother’s astute guidance and entrepreneurial acumen, educational institutions, artistic creativity and photography soon found space to flourish. It is not surprising then that Henri Cartier-Bresson, who had first come to India to photograph Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral in 1948, wrote asking to be allowed to take images of the darshan, where, four times in the year, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother appeared before their devotees, as well as of life in the ashram. Permission was granted and in their long essay in the volume that takes in aspects of photography in Pondicherry, Shilpi Goswami and Deepak Bharathan, both at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, discuss Cartier-Bresson’s portfolio. As Sri Aurobindo rarely allowed photographers, this was a coup of sorts. Apart from the image of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother at darshan on April 24, 1950, there are several of daily rituals at the ashram: the Mother receiving devotees, throwing flowers to them, and a particularly interesting series of her playing tennis wearing a white salwar kameez. Cartier-Bresson was allowed access to Sri Aurobindo’s room and a carefully angled shot from the side of the bed focuses on the tiger skin draped across it, writing desk with a few books, open window and a door beyond. In his personal diary, the photographer obviously could not but help comment on “the inevitable tiger skin which seems the companion of those aiming at spiritual achievement.” All negatives and prints of the photo-shoot were acquired by the Mother and a selection became part of a limited edition album; this became of historical and sentimental significance as Sri Aurobindo died a few months after, at the age of 78.
The camera was not new to Pondicherry as in the 1940s, photography was introduced to the ashram by Chimanbhai Patel, who had learnt the art in Nairobi and who in no time set up the Photo Service, complete with a darkroom and an enlarger. “Ashram Photography” became the name officially assigned to photographers and about the time that Cartier-Bresson arrived for his shoot, Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya and Tara Jauhar had started visually documenting life and work at the ashram. Apart from their “official” role, these two photographers together with Venkatesh Shirodkar took unusual portraits, figures in silhouette and chiaroscuros of flowing waters, a subtle poetry shimmering through many of these black and white images. Perhaps inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s visit and the Mother’s evident interest in photography, the Pondicherry international photography exhibition was organized by photographer Robi Ganguli; clearly as over two dozen countries participated, Pondicherry had become a familiar locale for photography aficionados. A viewing of the images that are now available make clear that photography at the Aurobindo Ashram played much more than an instrumental role: for, as a one-time artist trained at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, the Mother believed that “photography is an art when the photographer is an artist”. Her view found ample testimony in the work of a handful of creative photographers who were able to combine an artistic sensibility with dexterity behind the lens.