Cartier-Bresson and the Birth of Modern India
Henri Cartier-Bresson was an Indophile. He visited the country several times, and has left a brilliant photographic legacy. Women working, a moneychanger on a pavement, Gandhi's last moments, crowds, workers—all these and more formed the human material in his pictures, often lit by a rare inner light. We have learned to admire this light with our appreciation of trompe-Voeil master painting—'Vermeer light', the illumination in Rembrandt's Nightwaich, Turner's seascapes. As Satyajit Ray puts it in his foreword to the collection we draw from, 'and . . . [Cartier-Bresson's] photographs had [a] compelling, mysterious and memorable quality, as distinctive and as instantly recognizable as the work of any great painter.' (Cartier-Bresson 1987: 1) We propose, in this essay, to examine this 'compelling, mysterious and memorable quality in Bresson's work from a critical perspective in order to move toward understanding the political function of photography in our culture.
It may be felt that an essay on Cartier-Bres-son's pictures would be, strictly speaking, out-side the scope of a study of visual politics ^SJ^l^oS^Soty because of the 'high' art status of his work, and the selectivity of its reach. Such art could be seen as belonging to a realm far removed from that of daily imaging in advertising, news, etc. Hence, it could be argued, a critique of this kind of object can only have a limited relevance to an understanding of the mainstream visual images in Indian culture. It would be worthwhile sketching some kind of a defence against such an argument. Photography draws on and inflects the aesthetic norms of western oil painting. The photographic aesthetic is a variant and dialectical outgrowth of this earlier aesthetic,