India through the lens

India through the lens


India through the lens

Magnum photographers’ vision of India  is reflected in their images. Though India’s colour and light are cited as an inspiration to these photographers, their work reveals much more than its surface beauty, notes Monideepa Sahu

Some pictures convey more than a thousand words. Artistic photographers can capture vital images of human life, natural beauty, or even an era in history. Remember Steve McCurry’s unforgettable photograph of an Afghan refugee girl, taken in the 1980s?

Her innocent green eyes convey the horrors of war and its toll on innocent victims. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s iconic photographs of Gandhiji’s last days proceed from Gandhiji surrounded by his followers or serenely spinning his charka, to a shattered Pandit Nehru coming forward in the dark night to announce Gandhiji’s death. This image, along with Cartier-Bresson’s photos of crowds mourning around Gandhiji’s funeral pyre, captures the sorrow of an entire nation.

Common factor

A special bond unites these two photographers from different generations and countries with an exclusive circle. They are associated with Magnum Photos, an international co-operative founded in 1947 by Cartier-Bresson and three others, which includes some of the world’s leading photographers. In the decades since, work has brought several Magnum photographers to India. They have also captured unique impressions of their own. A recent retrospective by Tasveer Arts showcases their rich perspectives of Indian life.

Abbas (b. 1944), a French photographer of Iranian origin, has covered in Biafra, Bangladesh, Iran and elsewhere. His books explore religion and spirituality, covering Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and the revival of irrational rituals in a technology dominated world. In 2011, he began exploring Hinduism. These black and white photographs have a timeless quality. Buddhist nuns in the serene garden of Sarnath could well be from Lord Buddha’s days, except for sprinklers spurting in the backdrop. Fine, playful touches enliven these photographs. A Sanskrit student of Rishikesh descends a staircase, the picture of austerity. Sunlight and shadows play on the blank walls, while someone crouches mysteriously at the top of the stairs. The varied expressions of pilgrims in the hot springs of Badrinath convey human drama.

Olivia Arthur of Britain has explored the lives of women worldwide and won, among various honours, the Ojode Pez-PhotoEspana Award for Human Values. She has photographed members of the untouchable Ramnami sect of Central India, whose tattoos signify a unique protest against the oppressive caste system. The subjects display varied emotions, from sad resignation and firm defiance to a child with a tattooed head innocently playing.

Morocco born French photographer Bruno Barbey has reported from European and African countries, documented the 1968 political unrest and student riots in Paris, contributed to Vogue, covered several wars and was awarded the French National Order of Merit. A lively play of colours marks his work. Headless idols washed ashore on Mumbai’s beaches after immersion, have a surreal quality. Two pedestrians strike an intriguing pose as they cross a monsoon-flooded street. A homeless man rests on a sidewalk, near a wall painted with bright peacocks. Villagers enjoy gaudy joyrides in Rajasthan’s Pushkar fair.

Werner Bischof of Switzerland photographed Indian subjects in the 1950s. In his images, a Bharatanatyam dancer strikes a graceful pose as she prepares for a recital. The tattered t-shirt of a labourer at the Damodar Valley construction site speaks volumes for his hardships. Another exhausted labourer rests atop bags of foodgrains. Grim reminders of the poverty and hunger of our past are depicted alongside the laughter of urchins playing on a Trivandrum beach.

American Steve McCurry has covered international and civil conflict worldwide. He won an unprecedented four prizes in the World Press Photo contest, and is best known for his portrait of the green-eyed Afghan girl. He seeks out the vibrant colours of Holi, the smile of a poor herdsman of Rajasthan, and the pensive face of a girl being carried across a flooded street in Porbandar.

Indian contribution

Raghu Rai of India has worked for leading publications worldwide. He was awarded the Padmashree in 1971, and served on the juries of the World Press Photo and UNESCO’s International Photo contests. His selected photos are playful, filled with vibrant colours. Wrestlers jostle in friendly rivalry, echoed by a gate painted with wrestlers. In a surreal scene, a man bends near a headless, armless goddess, surrounded by colourful models of the heads of a cobra and a horse. Slum boys of Dharavi pretend to grab a plane as it lands.

Ferdinando Scianna of Italy presents black and white spaces and contrasts. He has authored several books, and collaborated with famous writers. He has also written on literature and photography, and on politics for Le Monde Diplomatique. He sets off the flat rectangles of a ghat in Benares against pointed boats. The river flows placidly in the backdrop. This apparently lifeless scene includes a man under a blanket, presenting a triangular form. A man rests in another image. Sunlight focuses upon his dhoti and bare pot belly, while his face and body hide in shadows.

Ayurvedic therapists pour oil on a patient, whose bare body glistens against the dull background.
American Marilyn Silverstone captures young Indira Gandhi scrutinising files. A youthful Satyajit Ray gazes at the Calcutta skyline. Jackie Kennedy shares a happy moment with her sister and the Maharani of Mewar. Maharani Gayatri Devi advises a prince on his wedding day, while a youthful Dalai Lama’s pose reflects the Bodhisattva image behind him. Intriguing details such as Indira Gandhi almost hidden in the backdrop, make this image memorable. Silverstone also records ordinary lives, such as boatmen straining to navigate a river in Ettamannur.

These photographers memorably project the India of yesterday, today and of times to come.