Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Gandhi Art and Public Life statement

For the CI Art and Public Life Project I want to generate a discussion on public or democratic art as the contagious effect of ethical self-work. I’ll be submitting two pieces in sequence. First (and directly below), an excerpt from my recent book, The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1955 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), about Henri Cartier- Bresson’s rare photographs of the Gurus of modern India. In October I’ll upload the next piece: a conversation with the Indian dramaturge Veenapani Chawla on the theatre of contagion. – Leela Gandhi


The Contagious Self

I’ve carried two items with me for a very long time now, believing they belong together as pieces in the puzzle of guru democracy. The first is a 1931 recording made by Gandhi (hereafter MKG) for the Columbia Gramophone Company while he was in London for the disappointing Second Round Table Conference on Indian constitutional reform.[i] Wryly claiming low expertise on political matters, he offers his thoughts on religion instead. In the course of a meditation upon existential interconnectedness, he endorses the “marvelous researches” of the physicist-turned-botanist J. C. Bose for giving evidence of a shared life-energy even among the most apparently inanimate substances. It is not surprising that MKG cites Bose (also much admired by Romain Rolland), who was an ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda and new Indian mysticism, and internationally famous in early twentieth-century science circles for his public demonstrations of acute affective sensitivity in tin foils, metal plates, mimosa plants, and palm trees. Seeking to prove there was unity rather hierarchy in nature (no higher/lower forms, just shared livingness), Bose frequently records the vertiginous sensation of symbiosis as he conducts experiments during which he finds himself catching the mood of the recording machine or influencing, by his own psychic state, the disposition of the plant (or other substance) under observation.[ii]

     At about the same time as Bose’s researches, MKG had also commenced similar politico-spiritual experiments of his own to test whether work on the self had a communal effect—not by way of influence and example so much as by a spectral circuit: for example, did fasting not just symbolically but alchemically expiate the violence of others? Was there a sympathetic magic whereby acts of personal expropriation or self-reduction actually conjured gifts for the dispossessed? Did the giving up of one’s own right to existence yield collateral for life itself? In other words, was the self of sadhana contagious? Could you catch the self-work of those around you and, likewise, virally communicate yours across short and long distances? Here are various comments from MKG: “How that chain can be established I do not know as yet. But I’m striving after it.” “Individuality is and is not even as every drop in the ocean is and is not. It is not because apart from the ocean it has no existence.” “I am an irrepressible optimist. My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop non-violence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might oversweep the whole world.”[iii]

     Now for the second piece of the puzzle, which comes with something of a story attached to it. It’s the catalogue of an exhibit by Henri Cartier-Bresson (henceforth HCB) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, published “posthumously” after HCB was assumed dead following his three-year incarceration after being captured as a POW by the Germans during the Second World War, while serving on a film unit for the French army.[iv] HCB joined the French resistance upon his release, taking pictures that combined a profound antifascism with acute distaste for the German-baiting that followed the end of the war. Fans of the photographer will recall the morally discomfiting still from his film Le Retour, which shows a Gestapo stool pigeon being exposed at a displaced persons camp in Dessau, Germany, by a woman with bared teeth and a hand preparing to strike. In this period, along with his commitments to anti-imperialism and the third-world revolutions sweeping across the world, HCB became increasingly interested in the gurus—partly on account of their growing popularity in the West. Sri Ramakrishna and MKG aside, Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramana had each been written up in popular US magazines such as Holiday and Life. Sri Ramana, especially, had shot into fame following W. S. Maugham’s fictional rendition of his encounter with the elusive guru in The Razor’s Edge (he later elaborated this meeting in an essay called “The Saint,” for which he got a lot of help from Christopher Isherwood).

     To resume my main interest, the copy of the exhibition catalogue is dated New Delhi, 30 January 1948, on the upper right corner, and it’s personally inscribed by the author to MKG in words of loving reverence: “To our beloved Bapu, with deepest respect, Henri Cartier-Bresson.” In India for the first time, HCB had cycled that very day for a photo shoot with MKG to Birla House, Delhi, in the midst of the great partition carnage sweeping through post-independence South Asia. Leafing, after a longish interview, through the catalogue that HCB brought as a gift, MKG inquired with particular interest about a photo that shows the verse-dramatist, Paul Claudel, on a street in Brangues, France, looking casually upon a stationary hearse beside him. Pausing over the image for a while, MKG spoke three words, possibly his penultimate that day, “Death, death, death.”[v] An hour later, as he crossed the garden for a prayer meeting, he would be assassinated by three shots at close range, receiving which he would speak three more words, his last ever: “Ram, Ram, Ram.”

Two years later, on a second trip to India in mid-April 1950, HCB found himself in Tiruvannamalai, taking, once again unbeknown to himself, the last photographs of Sri Ramana Maharshi, whose passing on April 14 coincided exactly with a meteor that the former observed, with numerous others, streaking across the night sky: “Hundreds of thousands of people . . . were witness to the meteor of light that streaked across the sky as Ramana Maharshi breathed his last. Chandralekha gasped: ‘Look, look, look!’ Poet Harindranath Chattopadhyaya shouted: ‘Mark the time, mark the time!’ Henri Cartier-Bresson bellowed: ‘Thirteen (minutes) to nine!’”[vi] Only a few days later, HCB traveled to Pondicherry—the first photographer in thirty years allowed to capture images of the gurus there and also the last to photograph Sri Aurobindo before his passing that year on December 5, 1950. From this final photo session, he recalls the extraordinary stillness of his subject, as though competing with the steadfast camera itself—the recorded recording the technology of recordation in a way that makes these stunning pictures the mise en abyme of two collaborating mirrors or lenses, standing between which we can sometimes catch our own infinite regression/infinite multiplication (depending on how good or bad we’re feeling about ourselves and the world): “Sri Aurobindo did not wink an eye during the entire ten minutes I was watching him.”[vii] Why HCB? Why was it HCB who recorded, in the end, the passion of the gurus of modern India?

     I don’t know much about the history of photography, but it seems to me this is one place where we might come closer to understanding the matter of HCB’s appropriateness as the last chronicler of the anti-narcissistic (or self-image-dissolving) iconicity of the gurus. I’ve always been moved by accounts of the subtle and not very long-lived split during the early years of European photography between English amateur artiness and French commercial populism, centered it seems to me on the status of portraiture and the aesthetics of likeness, respectively. The English group (e.g., H. P. Robinson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Octavius Hill) eschews verisimilitude, à la Walter Benjamin, for its association with mass taste. They strive instead to achieve the rare, the unique, or the exceptional in their combined and stylized art. In contrast, by embracing brazenly the art of likeness, the portraiture favored by the French group (Félix Nadar and André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, in particular) is already synecdochally in place of the crowd, the populace, and the multitude.[viii] Sometimes this is literally so, as in the case of early studio photographers, whose poor technology resulted in indistinguishable portraits in which everybody simply looks alike, and the subject may as well be anybody at all. But the more conscientious realists in this set actually confronted the democratic possibilities of likeness, thus conceived, and used all available technologies to disperse the main subject or to reveal a multiplicity—always more than one—in any single portrait. Some examples are the accentuated doublings of the vues stéréo format and the estranging, cartoonish iterations of the carte-de-visite contact sheet. More innovative strategies come from Nadar’s amazing photosculptures and autoportraits. Here the subject is placed on a raised platform surrounded by twenty-four cameras operating simultaneously to record as many angular views in a single moment of exposure surely intended to provoke the expostulations, “How are there so many of me in a single instant?” “Can I be so many and still remain identical with myself”? “If I am not where I am, perhaps I am where you are”? “Where I am most, I become the deluge.”

     We can track the paths of this inheritance in HCB’s non-guru portraits. The subjects here are never monumentalized over, above, and against the shifting background of common existence so much as marked, through the 35 mm Leica’s art of the candid instant, by their shared, quotidian temporality with the rest: the fatal stretch that exposes the elegant Rossellini’s greater girth; the sudden shadow of deep fatigue beneath Nehru’s eyes; Susan Sontag in a nanosecond of complete communion with her cigarette. Even more directly democratizing is the point made by those of HCB’s countless photos that catch the leader/individual’s subject-effect in the manifold of the actual crowd itself, so that you start to feel that perhaps the idea of the crowd is always the perfect verisimilitude of any given subject. Consider, from among HCB’s canvasses, for example, the restless and edgy audience that exposes the nerves of the stoic champion wrestlers in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; the unimpressed and recoiling old ladies at Aubenas manifesting perfectly the offensiveness of De Gaulle; the barely conscious audiences at Trafalgar Square copying the mind-numbing tedium of George VI’s coronation. Or these: the reeling crowd hanging off the train carrying MKG’s ashes, and the unmoving devotees at the last rites of Sri Ramana Maharshi, each palpably absorbing and reflecting their gurus. This, then, is portraiture as the photography of contagion. These images are not at all interested in discrete entities or, indeed, in particularity (“That photo is so Sri Aurobindo”). Instead their secret interest is in grasping and capturing the subtle thread of common life that runs between us all—in the guise of the shadowy circuitry connecting all elements in J. C. Bose’s laboratory, and as the microscopic asketic infection so devoutly sought by MKG in his lonely experiments with truth. So we learn, by degrees, that the gurus are all of us: they are our aspirations, our longings, and our likeness. By the same logic (and this may well be the consolatio secreted in HCB’s serendipitous “last photographs” in India), we are all gurus.


[i] Voices of History: Historic Recordings from the British Library Sound Archive, 2 vol. (London: British Library, 2005).

[ii] See especially J. C. Bose, Response in the Living and the Non-Living (London: Longmans, Green, 1902); Life Movement in Plants, 5 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, 1918–23); and Plant Autographs and their Revelations (New York: Macmillan, 1927).

[iii] Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, The Moral and Political Writings, 3 vols. (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1986-87), 2:135, 27; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, All Men Are Brothers (Ahmadabad: Navjivan Press, 1960), 125–26.

[iv] Lincoln Kirstein and Beaumont Newhall, The Photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1947).

[v] This encounter is reported by Henri Cartier-Bresson in the Heinz Butler documentary, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye (Paris: Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, 2003).

[vi] Sadananda Menon, “Master of the Moment,” New Internationalist Magazine, October 2004, n.p.

[vii] Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Notes by Cartier-Bresson on His Visit to Pondicherry and Sri Aurobindo Ashram” (From the archives of Magnum Photos), published in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research 14 (December 1990): 209.

[viii] For summary accounts of the split between amateur British and French commercial photography, see Grace Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography and the Mid-Victorian Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Gus Macdonald, Victorian Eyewitnesses: A History of Photography, 1826–1913 (New York: Viking, 1979); Michael Braive, The Era of the Photograph: A Social History (London: Thames and Hudson, 1966). There is a concise rendition of Walter Benjamin’s objections to the market vendors and charlatans of mass or industrial photography in his 1931 essay, “A Short History of Photography,” reprinted in Screen, 13, no. 1 (1972): 5–26.