It is from none less than Henri Cartier-Bresson that we get a telling little detail about Aurobindo Ghosh — writer, freedom-fighter and founder of the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry: “The old man did not wink an eye for the 10 minutes I was watching him.” This was in April, 1950, and HC-B had come to photograph one of those rare darshans given by Ghosh and his spiritual companion, the French-Jewish Mira Alfassa (called ‘The Mother’ by her devotees), at the ashram. Just before visiting Ghosh and Alfassa in Pondicherry, HC-B was in Tiruvannamalai photographing Ramana Maharshi, who died later that very day; and Ghosh died a few months after being photographed by HC-B.
MASTERING THE LENS (Mapin and Alkazi Collection of Photography, $35), curated by Rahaab Allana, reproduces selected pages from the album of silver-gelatin prints made by Cartier-Bresson after his visit to the ashram, together with photographs of colonial Pondicherry in the Alkazi Collection and the work of a few other Indian photographers like Tara Jauhar, Venkatesh Shirodkar and Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, who were living in the ashram as devotees. HC-B records in his Pondicherry journals what a delicate affair it was to approach the Mother for permission to photograph her and Ghosh in the sanctum sanctorum of the ashram, their private living rooms. She did allow him, but insisted that he must photograph them during the darshan surrounded by an “Artistic Shadow”: “she told me that was what they wanted from me: some indistinguishable shadow of themselves”. HC-B gently but firmly got it across to her that he was going to do his own thing, and the ashram was not too happy with the published results of the photo-shoot in the European magazines, especially HC-B’s not-adequately-reverent verbal account of what he had observed. A French devotee wrote to him in protest against the “clearly defamatory bias” of the images: “The accompanying article is unspeakably vulgar and shows a complete lack of understanding.” The Mother bought all the negatives and prints from HC-B for $3,000 (paid to Magnum Photos), and made 50 autographed copies of the album with her own selection of photographs.
This is the more interesting story within the official story of the album — that of its two versions, the photographer’s and the Mother’s, and the two, somewhat different, interpretations of the idea of darshan that each embodied. So, more than the historical and contextual pieces by photo-historians, what becomes concretely valuable in this book are the excerpts from HC-B’s written commentary to the photographs. One wishes that these were reproduced at greater length, for an engaged but disinterested vision of the anxious theatricality of institutionalized spiritualism emerges from the photographer’s observations: “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.” HC-B is thrilled with being allowed into Ghosh’s bedroom: “The room was so neat and tidy and so impersonal: dark wood furniture,waxed big arm chair — everything seemed right out of a large furniture magazine. The only thing that was on the bed spread across was the inevitable tiger skin, which seems to be the companion of those aiming at spiritual achievement.” There are photographs of the Mother’s ritual appearance in the morning on the ashram’s balcony. “She turns her head from left to right,” HC-B writes in his diary, “which gives her time to see exactly who is gathered in the street below. Then she slips back inside, silent as an apparition.” It is, in fact, the writing that makes the rather un- remarkable photographs worth dwelling on — the mix of fascination and recoil in HC-B that makes him see his subjects as two, somewhat surreal, individuals caught in the belljar of their own spiritualism.