Rare Cartier-Bresson photos of Sri Aurobindo on display

NEW DELHI Thu Sep 20, 2012 1:30pm IST

A woman looks at the unbound and unpublished photographs of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, curated by the Alkazi Foundation ''Mastering the Lens: Before and After Cartier-Bresson in Pondicherry'', at Alliance Francaise in New Delhi, September 19, 2012. REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal

A woman looks at the unbound and unpublished photographs of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, curated by the Alkazi Foundation ''Mastering the Lens: Before and After Cartier-Bresson in Pondicherry'', at Alliance Francaise in New Delhi, September 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Artist Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs of Sri Aurobindo, the guru nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and his French-born spiritual companion are on exhibit in New Delhi, offering a rare glimpse of life at the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry.

More than 100 prints from a photo album purchased at a London auction by an Indian art collector are on display. The photos were taken just months before Sri Aurobindo, founder of the commune in the former French colonial town of Pondicherry, died in 1950.

Widely regarded as the father of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson's fascination with India saw him capture remarkable images of Mahatma Gandhi's funeral in January 1948. Two years later, he undertook a lesser known project, becoming the first person in 30 years to photograph Aurobindo and his partner, known as the Mother.

The black-and-white photographs taken by the French master, who died at the age of 95 in 2004, show Aurobindo inside his bedroom, and the Mother interacting with devotees. In one series of Cartier-Bresson's images, the Mother, born Mirra Alfassa in Paris, is seen playing tennis.

"It's kind of an exploration of his more amateur side," Rahaab Allana, the exhibition's curator, said. "He's sort of a photographer in practice rather than an established photographer that we know Bresson to be."

The pictures had been kept out of public sight for decades. Some of the images were published in the British magazine Illustrated in 1951, but the Mother objected to the way Aurobindo was described in the accompanying article, with her personal secretary describing it as "unspeakably vulgar" in a letter sent to Cartier-Bresson.

As a result, the Mother bought all the photo negatives for $3,000 from Magnum Photos, the agency co-founded by Cartier-Bresson, and printed 50 albums that were sold to devotees.

"When you take those images and distribute them quite liberally, I guess the Mother felt that was not the original intention of taking the images," Allana said. "She wanted them to be a testimony and a chronicle of activities happening at the ashram itself."

In an interview in 1990, Cartier-Bresson explained that he was persuaded by Robert Capa, another photographer at Magnum, to sell the negatives because of financial difficulties at the agency.

It was "something I never did before in my life, and never did again," he said.

Allana believes the collection of photos on display at the Alliance Francaise cultural centre is a "collaborative endeavour" between the Mother, who selected the images, and Cartier-Bresson.

Notes by the renowned photographer in his personal diary during the assignment are also on display, offering an insight into how he and the Mother, who died in 1973, were at odds on how to capture photos of the ashram and Aurobindo in his room.

The exhibition in New Delhi runs until September 30 and heads to Pondicherry, now known as Puducherry, later this year.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Elaine Lies)

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