The Telegraph
Sunday , September 16 , 2012
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Exposed, rare moments

- French photographer’s work on Aurobindo on show
Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and the Mother from the album Sri Aurobindo and His Ashram. The picture taken by Cartier-Bresson in April 1950 is a gelatin silver print, 403 x 315 mm

New Delhi, Sept. 15: Photographs taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson 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. He 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, to accompany an “unspeakably vulgar” and “defamatory” article.

The photographer later said that Robert Capa, co-founder 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 months 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, who died in 1973, decided to grant Cartier-Bresson’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 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.”

Alongside the pictures taken by Cartier-Bresson are his typed notes. The exhibition will be on for two weeks. It will be open on all days, including Sundays.