The fervent uproar against the British rule in Indian Subcontinent caught the attention of the international media.
When it comes to the assassination of Gandhi, Indian history is replete with long and thick political accounts of what led to his killing on the ill-fated day of January 30, 1948. Along with political history, two internationally leading photographers, Margret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, played a key role in immortalising the towering figure of Gandhi through their sharp images.
The news of Gandhi’s assassination met the pull of demands and desires of the print media across the globe to cover the story not just as a routine exercise, but saw it as an opportune moment to express solidarity with the newly independent nation found in mourning at the monumental loss of Mahatma Gandhi. One of these publications was widely circulated and read American magazine LIFE by Henry Luce
After the disaster of World War II, the eventuality of decolonisation was reduced to a matter of time. The fervent uproar against the British rule in Indian Subcontinent caught the attention of the international media.
India stood strong as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire that gained freedom at the midnight of August 14-15, 1947 from the British Empire. It had also put the theory of two-nation into reality by carving Pakistan, the Muslim dominant nation born out of India Subcontinent. It was no surprise, White, the first female photographer for LIFE, made frequent visits to India from 1946 to 1948 to unflinching document modern Indian history in making from colonial days to 1947 Partition and finally Gandhi’s assassination.
In 1946 White paid a visit to India to document the lives of Indian leaders. Besides, spearheading the movement of freedom, the principles of satyagraha and ahimsa had made Gandhi an iconic figure of anti-colonialism worldwide.
White’s famous image of Gandhi and the spinning wheel was shot during her first trip to India.
Unfittingly, it never made it to the final story on “India’s Leaders” (May 27, 1946), published by LIFE. It was only after Gandhi’s assassination, the image’s impending significance was realised, “the spinning wheel as a symbol for India’s struggle for independence”, to find a space in the pages of the LIFE with a photo-essay “India Loses Her 'Great Soul’” (February 9, 1948).
Under the non-cooperation movement, foreign goods were strongly boycotted. In an effort to give a visual narration to the movement of Swaraj, the image frames the moment of spinning the cotton by Gandhi. The image is captioned “sitting cross-legged between his spinning wheel and his low desk, Mahatma Gandhi exemplified the virtues of simplicity that he preached”.
It was never a cakewalk for White to translate her professional demands into a reality, especially when it came to photographing Gandhi. Her permission to have a photograph of Gandhi spinning the wheel was granted by his secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar, only on a condition if she would be ready to learn the art of spinning that required focus and patience. Once she agreed, the staff sanctioned her request to take the photograph, which unfolds a moment of self-reliance by the revered Gandhi.
Flash at darshan
The use of flash by Bourke-White had been a troublesome issue for Gandhi and his devotees. Since the light was not very comfortable to Gandhi’s eyes, he dubbed her “the torturer”.
For Gandhi’s followers, her flashlight was seen as a sign of disrespect when White switched on the flashbulb to capture Gandhi’s mortals, kept for darshan, in the room of Birla House. While her films were exposed to the light, Hannah Sen requested White to leave the room. Unassumingly, she returned with a reloaded camera only to aggravate the situation. Sen this time escorted White to the doors and assured she does not return to the premises.
The history of India's struggle to freedom is synonymous with Gandhi, but the 1947 Partition had left him in deep despair. On January 12, 1948, Gandhi announced the hunger strike to protest against the riots between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. The duration of the fast was a concern for the devotees.
To put his agenda at the forefront he mentioned, “It (fast) will end when and if I am satisfied that there is a reunion of hearts of all communities”. Given his age, the endless fast could have been fatal. He shared a list of demands through his representative on the fifth day of the fast and maintained if all ethnic leaders would send their agreement in writing, he would be happy to break his fast.
Visiting a shrine
Given the tense situation in the post-partition days, the festivities of Urs at the Muslim shrine of Khwaja Kutub-ud-Din Bakhtiar in Mehrauli seemed less plausible. Bresson’s image of Gandhi’s visit to the shrine on January 27, 1948 highlights his ideas of communal harmony and inclusivity.
Before visiting the shrine as a symbol of solidarity with the Muslim community, Gandhi pleaded, “I yearn for heart friendship between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims”. Since the celebrations were a few days away, the first demand on the list stated “complete freedom of worship to Muslims at the tomb of Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtiar and non-interference with the celebration of the Urs.”
The sect leaders guaranteed peace and cooperation during Urs. He shared his thoughts, “Several days ago I had heard that it might not be possible to hold the Urs at Mehrauli I as in the previous years,” he said, “Had it been so I would have been deeply distressed.”
A sadhu’s life of abstinence
It was never easy for Gandhi to make a transition from the life of a professional lawyer to a Hindu sadhu living the life of abstinence. Another photograph by Bresson shows his back resting on a plump bolster, face towards a visitor with placed objects such as glass water bottle and metal basin.
The photograph works around sunlight and shadow of a winter morning where Gandhi is sitting under a shade and projects left hand in sunlight as a sign of reassurance. Shot a day before Gandhi’s assassination, the photograph plays with silhouettes to represent the complexity an ascetic’s life – comfortably heard of but difficult to practice.
The assassination of Gandhi by Nathuram Godse was anchored by the anguish felt by the Hindu nationalists who saw him as a promoter of peace between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi who has once hoped to live for 125 years, in his last interview with White, published along with the photo-essay “Gandhi Joins the Hindu Immortals” for LIFE (February 16, 1948), have him foresee his death when he said, “I have lost that hope”.
When White asked “Why”, he added, “because of the terrible things happening in the world. I do not want to continue in darkness and in madness. I cannot continue….”
Both White and Bresson were not present at the time of Gandhi's assassination. As the news of Gandhi's demise reached them, they rushed to Birla House to capture the last glimpse of his mortals.
On January 31, 1948 Bresson was walking along the procession through Old Delhi and standing at the funeral ground to give his last tribute to Gandhi, by doing what he did best - photographs. White followed the cortege, what she termed it as a “human stream” that turned into a “might river, miles long and miles wide,” in a car with her assistants.
It was an unprecedented collaboration between White and Bresson for the photo-essay. It documents the overwhelming account of Gandhi’s funeral and walks through the endless journey undertaken by his followers. White captured the last rites of Gandhi for her official publication LIFE, only it was sooner realised that her photographs fell short of the personal connection and intimacy.
The presence of Bresson at the event prompted LIFE’s editors to call Magnum requesting the first right to his images for publication. For the editors at LIFE Bresson’s body of work offered scale and traced the roots and routes of the chaos and pain at the eventful day. Little did they know that the photo-essay would be an incisive case study on the visual documentation of Gandhi’s funeral.
The wide range of sixteen black and white photographs capturing the frail demeanour of Gandhi in his last days, Indian leaders and grieving devotees in large numbers irrespective of their gender and caste paying homage to Gandhi, extend invitation to the viewers to take a look at the social fabric of India.
To control the large numbers of mourners that led to frenzy police was deployed at the site of the funeral. The men perched atop the lamppost risk their life to have a last glimpse of Gandhi before his body was consigned to the funeral pyre, devouts collect the soil moistens with his blood and ashes as the holy relics. Indian leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel, Gandhi's secretary Brij Krishen and Lord Mountbatten with his daughter stood strong as they prepare for Gandhi’s last rites.
Photography does not cease at the productions of the multitude of frames on the event, it is a careful craft that takes into account how posterity would read a photograph, separated by time and distance, yet drawing familiarity with the historical context of the event. Many decades later, virtually leafing through the photo-essay by White and Bresson in its archival form, does not fail to resonate with the viewers. Unknowingly, the curious on-looker strikes a chord with the inconsolable mourners captured in it.