Henri Cartier-Bresson died on August 3, 2004, at his home in Paris, France. He was 95 years old. Widely respected as one of the founding fathers of photojournalism and a pioneer in the art of photography, his pictures are admired for their spontaneity and mastery of form. A painter both at the beginning and end of his career, Cartier-Bresson took up photography in 1930 and went on to shoot some of the most memorable photos of the 20th century.
Cartier-Bresson always said his aim was to capture “the decisive moment,” that is, the essence of a situation or event that was unfolding before his eyes. Using a small hand-held Leica camera, and as little artificial light as possible, for four decades he roamed the globe catching human beings in the midst of action. From historic events, such as the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi and the rise of China’s Mao Zedong, to the smaller moments of workers relaxing or a family picnicking by the river Marne, he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and seizing the spirit of the moment.1
There was certainly a yogic element to Cartier-Bresson’s art. He loved perfection, and his quest as a photographer was to glimpse eternity in the fleeting instant. Inspired by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, he once said that his photographic method was to use his open eye to look through the viewfinder upon the outer scene, while with his other, closed eye he looked within.2 It was, perhaps, this inward gaze that caught the Mother’s attention and led her to grant him permission to photograph the Ashram in 1950.
When Cartier-Bresson arrived in Pondicherry on April 23, in time for darshan on the 24th, he was in the midst of an extraordinary series of events. He had just come from Tiruvannamalai, where he had photographed Sri Ramana Maharshi leaving his body, and borne witness to the fireball that streaked slowly over Arunachala at 8.47 p.m., the exact minute of the sage’s absorption into the Self. On the 24th, Cartier-Bresson was to obtain the only photographs ever made of Mother and Sri Aurobindo together at Darshan, and on the 25th he was destined to shoot the last living photograph of Sri Aurobindo, thus completing a remarkable trinity of final statements—Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi, and Sri Aurobindo.
By what Grace or hidden design the Divine chose Cartier-Bresson to record India’s three greatest leaders/spiritual figures of the 20th century as they stood on the threshold of life and death, we can only speculate. But clearly the phenomenon has a profound inner meaning. When Cartier-Bresson arrived in Pondicherry in April 1950, Sri Aurobindo had been in retirement for over 20 years, and had repeatedly declined requests to be photographed. In retrospect, we also know that Sri Aurobindo had already decided to leave the body, and was deeply engaged in two Herculean tasks: completing Savitri, and preparing for the first fully conscious descent into Death in the history of life.3 In a very real sense then, Sri Aurobindo was poised on the edge of his own decisive moment.
Initially, the Mother only gave Cartier-Bresson permission to photograph the premises of the Ashram, as well as ashramites engaged in their usual activities. However, soon she allowed him to take shots with Mother in the background, and as the trust grew, Mother even let Cartier-Bresson take portraits of herself. Cartier-Bresson’s diary shows that he felt the Mother’s sweetness and kindness, and his photos of her distributing flowers certainly express this quality.4
Yet the greatest photos were still to come. On the morning of April 25, 1950, the day after Darshan, Cartier-Bresson went to thank the Mother for the favours granted, and to ask for one more—permission to photograph Sri Aurobindo in his private quarters. According to Cartier-Bresson, he finally persuaded her with the statement, “I am only photographing the female aspect of the Divine. What about the male aspect?” In any case, the Mother consulted with Sri Aurobindo and—surprisingly—consent was given.5
From the mechanical perspective, the session was quick and quiet. Cartier-Bresson took about 10 minutes, during which time Sri Aurobindo impressed the photographer with his complete immobility. In his diary from the time, Cartier-Bresson wrote “The room was so neat and tidy and impersonal. Sri Aurobindo did not wink an eye during the entire ten minutes I was watching him, he did not seem to belong to that impersonal setting.” During an interview in Paris, 40 years later to the day (25 April 1990), Cartier-Bresson recollected thus: “My impressions of the Mother—a power woman. Sri Aurobindo was very remote. I had ‘a tremendous meditation’ far away.”6
From the spiritual perspective, on the other hand, Cartier-Bresson’s portraits of Sri Aurobindo sitting in his armchair stand among the most substantial documents in human history. The side shots, in which Sri Aurobindo’s face is less prominent, are unproblematic, so we shall review these quickly. What one sees in these photos is a meditating sage who seems to have materialized on the film from the future. Sri Aurobindo barely appears to belong to this time and place: in the inner eye, one sees him as bolt of frozen lightning on the verge of striking, or perhaps striking so continuously that one can no longer distinguish rest and motion; outwardly, it seems as if the chair itself is about to launch forward and fly. Time has ceased, and the Timeless is radiating out of Sri Aurobindo’s figure with diamond intensity….
However, the frontal compositions are more perplexing, especially the head-on portrait, so we shall dwell on it further. The first and most obvious feature of Sri Aurobindo’s last portrait is that he is not smiling. Also, he gives no revealing gesture or motion of note, and the composition seems rather static. There is nothing here to suggest transcendent bliss, not even that distantly tender smile from the Beyond that Welling captured in his famous bust of Sri Ramana Maharshi, shot only a few years earlier.7 On the surface, at least, Sri Aurobindo seems almost the antithesis of the jivanmukti that he was: his face is lined, his expression serious, and the atmosphere grave. This is not the delightful face of Krishna, rather the physiognomy of a warrior who has marched thousands of miles on foot and has yet, to borrow Frost’s famous line, miles to go before he sleeps. Even the Mother later commented that she was surprised by Sri Aurobindo’s look, for it was not the ever-patient and sweet visage she had come to know and love. “He… he let go…” she said poignantly.8
And yet, I feel, there is a deeper message and a divine purpose behind Sri Aurobindo’s solemnity, and artistically the inner dynamism of this photo is only accentuated by the composition’s seemingly static weight. For what we do see in Sri Aurobindo’s bare, frank look is the face of the supramental Avatar preparing to confront Death, to plunge into the very heart of Darkness and sow there the first seeds of the Life Divine. Sri Aurobindo looks grave here because the moment literally is grave. Make no mistake, this is no light lila of a God who does not feel the pain of human clay, it is the fully conscious surrender of the Godhead who has become the death-bound suffering that we are. Truly, this last photograph of Sri Aurobindo is the modern expression of Christ on the Cross, only the passion is inner not outer, and the Lord is dying in order to secure for us life everlasting on earth, not in some hereafter.
Speaking for myself, I feel that Sri Aurobindo’s last portrait has a unique power of spiritual healing. It is not an easy photograph to live with, granted, and during my lighter moods and in the midst of my quotidian concerns I cannot bear to contemplate it deeply, for it is a profoundly serious testament. But when I am down, when I am feeling defeated, when I have reached the utmost limit of my endurance, then this photograph comes to me. Especially it speaks to me in my absolutely darkest passages, during those dire and decisive inner moments when it feels my very soul is on the verge of relinquishing the battle because the world’s burden is too great and my own failings unfixable.
When I look to Sri Aurobindo’s last portrait in such times of critical need, then suddenly he looks different: I see that his face is my face, is every human face, is the Divine who has taken birth on earthly soil. I feel that his fatigue is my fatigue, is all human fatigue, is the Divine who has assumed the burden of human toil. I look into Sri Aurobindo’s left eye, and am taken in by the soft, receptive compassion of the divine Friend who understands my pains and errors because he shares them, whose sympathy is boundless because he walks right at my side and knows intimately every rock and pitfall on the Path. I look into his right eye, and am met by the steady gaze of Wisdom that looks dispassionately upon the labour of ages and fills me with a calm knowledge that the final fruits of evolution are as certain as the failures of the moment now seem. I look again upon the lined visage of the great Warrior who has fought so much, endured so much, and a new resolve enters my soul. I think “well, since He has borne so much for me, I must give something small in return. I will go one more step forward on the path—in honour of Him.” And so my heart warms again, and my will returns. I feel the arm of the great Protector around me, and the grim predator of darkness that was stalking my soul recedes, banished by a diamond Light that shines out from behind one human face.
This, for me, is the significance of Cartier-Bresson’s final portrait of Sri Aurobindo. It extends to struggling mortals the helping hand of an Avatar who otherwise might have remained forever impersonal and distant to us. For though Savitri and The Life Divine bring us glowing intimations from a brighter future, the weaker parts of us needed something else, too–this visual reminder that the supramental Avatar was also human like us. He is not only above and beyond us, He is also with and inside us, feeling our feelings, fighting our battles, facing the same mortality we face. Evidently, Sri Aurobindo knew exactly what he was getting in Cartier-Bresson, and he decided the French photographer was the right instrument to convey the Avatar’s parting gift to a suffering humanity—a gift made all the greater by its very humanity.
1. “Kingdoms of the world in a moment,” in The Economist, August 5, 2004.
2. Cartier-Bresson H. and Sand ML. The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture, 1999.
3. Nirodbaran. Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo AshramTrust: Pondicherry, 1972, pp. 265-292.
4. “Documents in the life of Sri Aurobindo: the last photographs of Sri Aurobindo,” in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press: Pondicherry, December 1990, pp. 207-09, 216.
7. Bhagavan Sri Ramana: a Pictorial Biography. Sri Ramanasramam: Tiruvannamalai, 1981, p. 102.
8. A conversation of 16 October, 1965.
From the Editor:
• All of Cartier-Bresson’s compositions are done at the time of exposure, and all of his photos (except Behind the Gare St. Lazare, 1932) include the black border of the negative, indicating that no cropping is done in the darkroom.
• Henri Cartier-Bresson called photography “instantaneous drawing.” He drew and painted early in his life and in the last years, had returned to it again.