x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Rare photos offer a glimpse of guru's life

Images of Aurobindo kept from public for more than 60 years.

NEW DELHI // Photographs of an Indian guru nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and his French-born spiritual companion have gone on display in New Delhi, offering a rare glimpse of life at the Aurobindo ashram in southern India more than 60 years ago.

The pictures were taken by the French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, just months before Sri Aurobindo, the 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 less well-known project, becoming the first person in 30 years to photograph Aurobindo and his partner, known as the Mother. More than 100 prints from an album bought at a London auction by an Indian art collector are on display.

The black-and-white photos show Aurobindo in his bedroom, and the Mother interacting with devotees.

In one series of images, the Mother, born Mirra Alfassa in Paris, is seen playing tennis.

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

The pictures had been out of the public eye for decades. Some of the images were published in the British magazine Illustrated in 1951.

However, 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 negatives for US$3,000 (Dh11,000) 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," said Mr Allana. "She wanted them to be a testimony and a chronicle of activities happening at the ashram itself."

In 1990, Cartier-Bresson, who died in 2004 at the age of 95, said that he had been 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 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 images of the ashram and Aurobindo in his room.

The exhibition runs in New Delhi until September 30 and will move to Pondicherry, now called Puducherry, later this year.