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The Man Who Shot Gandhi...

...with his camera. The Rubin Musuem in New York is showcasing an exhibition of the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who clicked a portrait of Gandhi on 30 January 1948, an hour before he was shot

Photo Credit :

A few months post India’s independence a young French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson and his Javanese poet-dancer wife, Ratna Mohini, travelled to India with the intention of creating a photographic essay that would capture the essence of the country, its past and present at a time of rapid social change.

In January 1948, Cartier-Bresson met Mahatma Gandhi and clicked pictures of him breaking his hunger strike that he had embarked upon to protest the Hindu-Muslim violence that had gripped the country, in the aftermath of the partition.

Ninety minutes after Cartier-Bresson clicked iconic pictures of Gandhi, the Mahatma was shot by Nathuram Godse, making Cartier-Bresson the last person to shoot him alive. It also put Cartier-Bresson in the unique position of recording one of the most momentous episodes in India’s history. Cartier-Bresson’s camera went on to capture Jawaharlal Nehru announcing Gandhi’s death, the emaciated body, throngs of mourners, the funeral pyre, and the scattering of the ashes in the Ganga at Allahabad.

The photo-essay was published in Life magazine, catapulting the Frenchman to glory.

The Rubin Museum in New York is exhibiting a solo show of Cartier-Bresson’s iconic photographs titled ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: India in Full Frame’ on till January, 2018. Almost half of the 70 black and white photographs in the exhibition recount how Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) brought the visual tale of Gandhi’s assassination and its aftermath to the world.

Cartier-Bresson visited India on behalf of Magnum, the photo agency that he had co-founded with legendary war photographer Robert Capa. Though Cartier-Bresson never thought of himself as a photo journalist, moving from image to image at the exhibition, it is fascinating to see how he found himself right at the heart of Indian politics.

“Some say Cartier-Bresson had the uncanny knack of being at the right place at the right time. But that is a skill,” explains Dawnette Samuels, the tour guide at the Museum.

Cartier-Bresson had gone to India with new equipment, primarily, the small Leica that used more light-sensitive film and was quick and quiet to use. He later wrote that the unobtrusive Leica did not require a flash, making it easier to shoot.  ‘We are bound to arrive as intruders,' he wrote. 'It is essential, therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe. It is no good jostling and elbowing.’  Cartier-Bresson’s Leica is also on display along with the press card that he used in India.

The iconic photographs at the Museum include Gandhi breaking his fast and later visiting the Mehrauli shrine in Delhi.

A day before Gandhi’s assassination, Cartier-Bresson showed Gandhi some of his photos including one of a hearse and Gandhi asked “What is that?” Cartier-Bresson explained what the function of a hearse was in Western culture. Gandhi is said to have replied, “Death, death, death.” Almost foreboding what was to come for him the next day.

On the night of the Mahatma’s assassination, Cartier-Bresson captured Jawaharlal Nehru announcing to the world: “The great light is extinguished.”  

Cartier-Bresson’s photograph of Brij Kishen, Gandhi’s close associate grieving beside the funeral pyre while Gandhi’s doctor tries to quieten the large crowd has an emotional appeal.

The exhibition has images of trees full of people who have clambered up to get a better view of the funeral procession, mourners for whom the death of the Mahatma was worse than a family member dying.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and his small Leica camera captured the mood of the nation post the Mahatma’s death, allowing us a glimpse of history, 70 years later.  

Among other historical images at the exhibition is one of Jawaharlal Nehru standing with the Mountbattens in front of the Government House in Delhi.

Cartier-Bresson was adamant that his photographs be shown in full frame, without being cropped. “He was so combative about this that he had his photos printed with a black border arou-nd each of the photographs, depicting the full frame of the photo,” says Samuels pointing out the black borders around the photos on display at the exhibition.

Not Just Gandhi
Besides the photographs related to the Mahatma, there are several other photos at the exhibition that encapsulate life in India in its first few years of Independence. From sarees drying in the wind to refugees exercising in make shift camps, from the outstret-ched hands of a beggar to a maharani clasping a necklace on a maharaja, Cartier-Bresson captured it all.

His photo essays depicting Gandhi’s funeral which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Life and Illustrated are also displayed.

There are also a couple of letters written by Cartier-Bresson to his family in July and August of 1948 describing his visits to Srinagar and Ladakh. Reading a letter dated 16 July 1948, in which Cartier-Bresson comments on the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, one has a sense of déjà vu — the letter could just as well have been written today.  Another fascinating letter is one written by freedom fighter Yusuf Meherally to Cartier-Bresson’s wife, Ratna Mohini, introducing her to artists such as Jamini Roy and art dealer Kekoo Gandhy.  

As India celebrates 70 years of Independence, the photographs clicked by Henri Cartier-Bresson bring alive the anguish, heartbreak and misery of partition and the death of the Mahatma.