Documents in the Life of Sri Aurobindo
THE LAST PHOTOGRAPHS OF SRI AUROBINDO
Written documents have been reproduced verbatim, unedited except within square brackets. Oral and transcribed documents have been edited for clarity but not altered in substance. The fact that a historical document comes from an authentic source does not guarantee the truth of every statement in it. Observant readers will find many statements in the present series of documents that are not consistent with one another or simply untrue.
I. The Photographs Taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson in April 1950.
Extracts from the correspondence of Philippe Barbier Saint-Hilaire (Pavitra).
Extract from letter Cartier-Bresson (in Madras) to Saint-Hilaire, 13 April 1950. Translated from the French.
I represent an association of photographers called Magnum Photos. This agency, whose headquarters are in New York, distributes our photographic reportages to the principal magazines of the world. My own reportages have appeared in Life, Harpers Bazar, Réalités, Illustrated, etc.
I was introduced to the works of Sri Aurobindo by the translations of Jean Herbert.
I and my wife, who is Indonesian, wish very much to come to the Ashram for the next darshan and I would be extremely grateful to you if you could provide me with the authorization to make a photographic testimony of the life of the Ashram at the time of the darshan and during the days that precede it.
Extract from letter Saint-Hilaire to Cartier-Bresson, 18 April 1950. Translated from the French.
I have received your letter and shown it to the Mother. You and Madame Cartier-Bresson have been granted permission to attend the next darshan, on Monday, the 24th of April. The Mother also authorizes you to make a photographic reportage on the Ashram at this time.
Notes by Cartier-Bresson on his visit to Pondicherry and Sri Aurobindo Ashram. From archives of Magnum Photos, Paris. Transcribed (with omissions) and edited by Bobbie Voit.
Four times a year Sri Aurobindo has darshan with the 700 or so Ashramites. Mother has personal contact with each one with her strong, kind and fascinating eyes. Most of the Ashramites are Bengalis or Gujeratis.
Pondicherry is a small provincial town with 5 or 6 blocks of well kept beautiful 17th century French houses along a sandy beach, with behind inland the Indian section with smaller houses of the same period, not as well kept. Pondicherry has the charm of a silent little town: the only other town that has as much charm is Cochin to have had a long chat with the Mother on worldly subjects.
The morning after Darshan [i.e. on 25 April] I went to thank the Mother for giving me permission to take their picture at Darshan, but I told her that the conditions of the light there would make the results most unsatisfactory to the disciples who were expecting a portrait as clear as the one in circulation now. She told me that is what they wanted from me, some indistinguishable shadow of themselves; this I had fully succeeded. Mother was so helpful and she convinced Sri Aurobindo and I came in his bedroom with my camera. 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.
I took pictures of Anu dancing, of the dining hall building, of Dr. Banerjee. More photos of the 1.30 p.m. daily ritual with the Mother. Also of her tossing flowers off the balcony. She gives out candies (very good ones too) to the gymnastiques [sic]. Mother sleeps only 3 or 4 hours a night. The very nice Bengali gentleman who was taking us around, referred often to Mothers trances such as: Mother is not coming down now, she might still be in a trance.
I took pictures of Pondicherry streets at a time when most of the disciples were indoors and the streets were full of heat and silence. I took color shots too in Kodachrome. I took pictures of Nolini Gupta, the Secretary of the Ashram at 5 p.m. I took pictures of the daily tennis game. I took pictures of Pranab, a young strong Bengali Director of Physical Culture in the Ashram. He is one of the persons closest to the Mother. I took pictures of Pavitra, he is a calm person of great affability and kindness.
While children were doing gymnastics Mother in a little room by the Playground was giving a French lesson to some pupils. They were analysing a text; Mother was asking them what is the difference between success and perfection.
The next morning we were leaving Pondicherry. I took pictures of a French family on the platform of the station you see very few Europeans walking around town.
Notes by Magnum Photos on the contact sheets printed from Cartier-Bressons negatives. These contact sheets remain in Magnums archives in Paris. Transcribed by Bobbie Voit.
[General note] Sri Aurobindo not to be used (negs and rights sold to Aurobindo Ashram)
#59-8 [One contact sheet missing] Mother herself watches the exercises of the Ashrams playground. This picture which shows Mother in the background was the first Cartier-Bresson was allowed to take of her.
#59-13 Sometimes Mother is late for her 6.45 a.m. balcony appearance, then disciples say Mother is still in trance; they wait for her in concentrated silence.
#59-23 A young disciple, after having been favored with a flower selected especially for him bends down to touch Mothers feet, first with his hands, then with his head.
#59-27 Devotees who have come to pay their respect to Sri Aurobindo. They are waiting in one of the courtyards of the Ashram until they can go upstairs. They wait for hours, silently and with great patience, some in prayer.
#59-29 On Darshan Day the disciples of the Ashram parade in formations through the streets of Pondicherry. After passing Sri Aurobindo and the Mother they quickly change their gymnastic shorts and return again for darshan, joining this time with outsiders, who are admitted by special permission.
#59-33 Cartier-Bresson was the first photographer in many years to be allowed to take pictures of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Both had been photographed 30 years ago for the last time. The pictures from that period are still sold to the faithful in the Ashrams courtyard.
#59-34 Cartier-Bresson was granted a short special audience to take pictures of Sri Aurobindo. During the ten minutes it lasted, in which Sri Aurobindo did not wink an eye. His room was neat and tidy.
#59-39 Anu; the dancing teacher at the Ashram.
#59-40 A yogi in one of his asanas.
#59-41 Exercises at the Indian pole called malkhamb.
#59-42 Mothers daily tennis game.
#59-43 Mother on the tennis ground. At left, Pranab, a young Bengali, who is Director of Physical Education at the Ashram. He is one of the persons closest to the Mother. At right Pavitra (meaning Purity), Secretary General of the Ashram an ex-student of the Paris Ecole Polytechnique. His real name is de Saint-Hilaire.
Extracts from write-up by Magnum Photos based on Cartier-Bressons notes. From the archives of Magnum Photos. Transcribed (with omissions) and edited by Bobbie Voit.
Before leaving India, Cartier-Bresson visited Pondicherry where Sri Aurobindo and the Mother reside. Sri Aurobindo has lived there since April 1910. Sri Aurobindo is known throughout India as the Living God. He never leaves his room, four times a year he appears before his disciples for just one hour. Outsiders can visit the Ashram only if they obtain an invitation. Cartier-Bresson and his wife were among the privileged few to be admitted.
When Cartier-Bresson arrived he had to promise, upon his word of honor that he would not take pictures of Sri Aurobindo or the Mother. Sri Aurobindo reached his 78th Birthday on August 15th (which is also Independence Day for the Indian Republic) 1950. Neither Sri Aurobindo or the Mother had been photographed in the last 30 years. After photographing the various buildings and activities of the Ashram, and as a result of ceaseless pleadings with the Mother and the Secretary General, Cartier-Bresson was authorised to take pictures of the Mother or, more precisely, to include her in the far distant background of some of his photographs. Gradually as he became better acquainted, he drew closer with his camera. Ultimately, it was the Mother who obtained permission for Cartier-Bresson to photograph Sri Aurobindo himself and the Mother also posed for Cartier-Bresson with Sri Aurobindo. One condition was set down by the Mother, that they be surrounded by an Artistic Shadow to reflect the atmosphere of this place of worship. In an audience with the Mother, the following morning, Cartier, firmly but gently explained that his photographs had so much artistic softness that not only would the pictures be a disappointment of the millions of faithful, but that the reputation of the portraitist was also at stake. The Mother, an extremely good-hearted and understanding person, finally allowed Cartier-Bresson to work in his own way. He had to promise, however, that he would submit all pictures for approval before publication.
A conversation between Madhav Pandit and Champaklal, extracted from Champaklal Speaks (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1975), p. 115.
MADHAV: Champakbhai, do you remember Cartier Bresson who was allowed to take photographs of Sri Aurobindo? If I remember right, he had not been photographed after he retired in 1926. I had heard that when Cartier Bresson stood to photograph Sri Aurobindo and Mother giving Darshan on 24.4.50, his hands shook, and we see it in the Darshan photograph we now have. Do you recollect?
C: Ah, yes. The day after the Darshan, when the Mother was distributing flower garlands downstairs, he took a number of photographs. Mother had gone down for the function specially early that day.
Later, she came to Sri Aurobindo and spoke something to him. After she combed his hair, she asked how long it would take to get ready. We said 9 a.m. Only the bust, Mother said.
I interjected: If he is coming to photograph, why not the full figure?
MOTHER: If Sri Aurobindo says so
C: If you want it, he will not say no.
MOTHER: Ask him.
And I asked Sri Aurobindo; he consented.
I asked Sri Aurobindo if I could change his sofa etc. and if the light was enough. He indicated his approval with a smile.
Then I went down and told the photographer that he could come upstairs earlier to the room and arrange things as he desired.
But he did not come. And when he came at the scheduled time, a number of photographs were taken, though of the full figure he took only one at any rate he had only one finally.
Extract from correspondence of Philippe Barbier Saint-Hilaire. Letter Saint-Hilaire (?) to Cartier-Bresson, 13 July 1950. Translated from the French.
It is now two and a half months since your visit and we have not yet received prints of your photographs. I hope you do not hold it against me for writing to you, if not to remind you of our agreement for we are certain you have not forgotten it but at least to ask you to verify that you New York office has received and carried out your instructions.
I believe there should be no need for me to remind you that we will take every precaution to prevent the leaks that you alluded to.
Diary Notes dated 27 July 1950, extracted from Champaklal Speaks, pp. 119-20.
Mother informed Sri Aurobindo that news had come from America about the photographs taken by Cartier Bresson. Tata had been to enquire at the Company and he was told that the film had been received. But as the lady in charge was not there, work had not started yet. They told him of the condition that the photographs must not be shown to any one excepting Sri Aurobindo and Mother, who had to select and return the collection. On receiving them back, they would publish them in some Journal in America and it was only six months thereafter that photos could be issued by us here.
Mother added that she was preparing for an album which would be in great demand.
When I came to Mother, she said: I think the photo of Sri Aurobindo on chair will come out very well.
C: Mother, he has taken so many of yours; from them some will surely come out well.
MOTHER: He has taken hundreds. Out of them at least one or two will come out well.
Extracts from the correspondence of Philippe Barbier Saint-Hilaire (Pavitra) and that of Jayantilal Parekh (items k and l).
Letter Saint-Hilaire (?) to Magnum Photos, New York, 7 September 1950.
We have received untampered and in perfect condition the pictures and we found them all very good.
You may use them freely for publication. The Mother would prefer that the three pictures numbered [X, Y, Z] should be omitted as they are not quite so good as the others.
I am writing to Mr. Cartier-Bresson to know his future intentions. Till we have his answer the prints will remain in safe custody. You may be assured that they will not even be shown to anybody.
Letter Magnum Photos to Saint-Hilaire, 25 September 1950.
We shall be careful to avoid using prints numbered [X, Y, Z], as you suggest.
Extract from letter Saint-Hilaire to Magnum Photos, 6 December 1950. Original in English.
We regret to announce that Sri Aurobindo has entered into Mahasamadhi. In view of this happening the previous statement about the publication of the photos taken by Mr. Cartier-Bresson will have to be reviewed.
The Mother is asking you not to publish henceforth any of Sri Aurobindos portraits, i.e. the ten pictures in which he is alone, and to send her all the negatives. We would be much obliged if, along with the negatives, you send one enlargement of each of them on matt paper, 10ó×12ó size. We are ready to meet all your charges, for the negatives and the prints; we do not make it a question of money.
The three pictures in which Sri Aurobindo appears together with the Mother may be published by you, but the negatives should also be sent to us.
As for the remaining pictures, you may publish them, as previously agreed. Please send the negatives and prints, at your earliest convenience, by Insured Air-Mail, and confirm the dispatch by cable. We are informing Sri Aurobindo Library [New York] to make the necessary payments on our behalf.
Telegram Magnum Photos to Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 8 December 1950.
SORRY ALL DISTRIBUTION ARRANGEMENTS ALREADY MADE MAGNUM
Extract from letter Cartier-Bresson to Saint-Hilaire, 21 December 1950. Translated from the French.
When I had the privilege of seeing Sri Aurobindo, I had the impression that he was beyond Time.
Extract from letter Saint-Hilaire to Cartier-Bresson, 13 January 1950. Translated from the French.
I have sent you in Paris a copy of the letter that I addressed to your office in New York, asking them to send us the negatives of your photographs of Sri Aurobindo. We have not yet received any reply.
Mrs. A.M. Montgomery (of Vogue) writes us that your office is certain that the negatives have been sent to you in Paris and that the decision is yours.
We have received the issues of Heute and of Illustrated that published some of your photographs. Regarding Heute there is little to say: not brilliant, but passable. But as for Illustrated it is distressing to say the least. The photographs, like all of yours, are fine; but the selection, the arrangement and particularly the captions show a clear defamatory bias. The accompanying article is unspeakably vulgar and shows a complete lack of understanding.
We realize that this sort of deformation is very prevalent but we thought we could rely on your impartiality, if not your good will.
We therefore ask you to put an end to all such vulgar publications immediately and definitively.
We are ready to purchase, from you or your office, all photographs, negatives and prints, so that this defamation which is an insult to the memory of Sri Aurobindo shall cease.
If you send instructions to your office in New York, Mrs. A.M. Montgomery and The Sri Aurobindo Library will look after all negotiations there.
Extract from letter Cartier-Bresson to Saint-Hilaire, 24 January 1951. Translated from the French.
I have received your letter of 13 January, which saddens and distresses me. Indeed the press often brings a great lack of understanding to its coverage of the great problems, masking it with a sneer. But I believe that these things cannot touch you. You did me the honour of approving the publication of my photos, of which the Mother remarked when she saw the prints: “His camera has a soul.” I thought that the photos spoke for themselves.
The back of every one of my prints is stamped: “This photograph can be reproduced only with the accompanying caption or with a text strictly in the spirit of the caption.” To take such precautions is not the normal practice. My wishes are usually respected. But it is hardly possible for me to be simultaneously in all the places where our work is distributed and so I cannot be in the various countries at the time of the publication of the photographs. As to the layout of the photographs, it is still not the practice for the photographer to have any say about the arrangement of his work….
Thus I request you to convey to the Mother my profound regret for the distress that that uncalled-for article has caused you.
I only wish to please you. I have never sold my negatives. They are part of my eye. But I think we can arrive at some arrangement. You realize that it is not a matter of “making a deal” but of compensating my agency for the losses they have sustained as a result of withdrawing these photos from circulation. They have only appeared in three countries, I believe, and remain to be used in all the others. I can make no commercial decision myself. That will have to be done by the agency, which will study the question and make you a proposal that I hope will be satisfactory to you….
Extract from letter Saint-Hilaire to Cartier-Bresson, 24 February 1951. Translated from the French.
We were happy to receive your letter which is in accord with our recollection of you…. From the first we were convinced that you were unaware of the way in which your work and at the same time your own photographic vision had been distorted. Because it is your own vision, to which you have given a material form in your negatives…. We await the proposal of your agency in New York and hope that it will be in accordance with your wishes.
Letter Patricia Hagan, Magnum Photos New York, to Mr. V.S. Tatachari [Mr. Tata], Sri Aurobindo Library, New York, 16 May 1951.
Following our conversation this morning, here is the contract which I am authorized to suggest to you:
I am sure… that I need not tell you how distressed Cartier has been by the misunderstandings which have arisen. He has, and so have we, only the deepest respect for the privileges accorded him by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother….
Extract of letter Jayantilal Parekh to V. S. Tatachari, 29 May 1951.
I am in receipt of your letter dated May 17th and also of the enclosed letter from Magnum Photos, Inc., date May 16th. And addressed to you. These letters were put before the Mother and She has carefully considered their contents.
Mother has instructed me to write to you to say that
Telegram V. S. Tatachari to Parekh, received in Pondicherry, 8 June 1951.
REFERENCE MAGNUM PHOTOS MYSELF HAVE COUNTEROFFERED TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS PAYABLE STERLING OR FRANCS STOP AWAITING BRESSON’S CONFIRMATION WITHIN WEEK STOP CABLING LATER STOP MY PROBLEMS WITHIN CONTROL BY MOTHER’S GRACE.
Telegram Parekh to Tatachari sent in reply to above.
DON’T BARGAIN WITH MAGNUM PHOTOS STOP 3000 DOLLARS ALREADY DEPOSITED INDIAN OVERSEAS STOP STRICTLY FOLLOW MY LETTER STOP BLESSINGS MOTHER.
Letter Saint-Hilaire to Magnum Photos, New York, 8 June 1951.
Mr. V. S. Tata has transmitted to us the letter written by Miss Patricia Hagan on your behalf….
As we now learn that Mr. Tata is travelling and may not be in New York for some time, and in order not to delay any longer the settlement of this affair, we are sending you herewith a copy of the letter addressed to Mr. Tata.
We hope you will consider the matter at your earliest convenience and send us the negatives within the period mentioned in our letter, i.e. by the third week of June. The dollars are already deposited in the bank waiting for the parcel. An early answer would oblige us.
Undated letter from Patricia Hagan, Magnum Photos, New York, to Saint-Hilaire.
… Although both Cartier-Bresson and Magnun, as his agents, are more than anxious to do everything possible to hasten the delivery of the negatives to the Mother, I am afraid that it is impossible to meet the deadline you have given us. This is due to the fact that Mr. Tata and I have reached an end to the discussions only during the past week….
Extract from letter Saint-Hilaire to Cartier-Bresson, 28 June 1951.
The negatives have just arrived, in perfect condition.
Note accompanying the negatives, dated June 1951. Translated from the French.
To the Mother,
In profound gratitude for having allowed me to make these photographs and with the expression of my sincere respects. Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Diary Notes” dated 26 June 1951, extracted from Champaklal Speaks, p. 125.
Negatives of photographs taken by Cartier-Bresson have come, in all 460 of them - some spoiled, some faded. “They are all locked up in my safe”, Mother said.
Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson: Paris, 25 April 1990. The interviewer, Bobbie Voit, took notes during the interview as M. Cartier-Bresson did not want her to use a tape-recorder. What follows is a transcription of the notes, edited slightly for clarity. M. Cartier-Bresson spoke in English.
My first wife was Indonesian, her education was dancing. Muslim but she was a Vedantist. We both were involved in the United Nations for the independence of Indonesia.
It was Jean Herbert and Liselle Reymond who suggested that I go visit the Ashram. We had just founded Magnum. I stayed in India for one and a half years.
We met François Baron who was representing the French Government of India. It was he who introduced me to “La Mère”. It was a delicate matter because Mother was in favour of the Indian Independence of Pondicherry.
First I went to Tiruvannamalai - to see Ramana Maharshi who was a completely accomplished being.
A Bharat Natyam dancer who lived in Madras named Chandralekha… a contact.
At Tiruvannamalai I saw a ball of fire moving slowly across the sky. As a practical Frenchman I timed it. Some kid came out and said that Bhagawan (Ramana) died 13 minutes to 9 in the evening.
I think that he was buried vertically. I took pictures with a flash which is something I never do.
Afterwards I went to Pondicherry. Well received by the Mother. She was teaching gymnastic movement. I noticed that the Ashram was very Westernized. She owned about half of Pondicherry. Very well organized. Again she was extremely nice to us.
I did not come just to take pictures. Camera is a sketchbook, a diary. Not interested in photography.
I do not believe in the past - never been a Christian - moved by Buddhism.
With a small camera you can understand immediately the moment and immediately forget yourself.
The Mother let me photograph everything. Then I asked her, “I am only photographing the female aspect of the Divine. What about the male aspect?” She went up to Sri Aurobindo’s room and came down and said, “You can thank me - you can photograph under very subdued light (artistic shadow).”
I am not sure whether she said I could photograph him now or later.
I took photographs in practically pitch dark. I told the Mother this is very embarrassing - the film isn’t fast - people would be disappointed in my reputation and in yours also.
Took more photographs of the Mother playing tennis and the general activities.
Had film developed in Bombay. The Mother wanted to see the contacts. We went through all the contacts together and crossed out certain pictures on the contacts and on the negatives ourselves. The Mother was concerned about her wrinkles and her appearance. All this was done under her supervision, under her direct guidance. Then I went and worked elsewhere in India.
The Mother knew they would be published in Life, Paris Match. Illustrated - in five magazines.
I was not responsible for any of the text that was printed. I only asked of the magazines that captions should not be used with his [Sri Aurobindo’s] photographs.
I kept on working in India. Then one day back in Paris the Mother’s son arrived and explained that the Mother was quite upset by the publication of the Ashram photos in Illustrated - a British magazine. The publisher, an agnostic, wrote the text. I had no control over the text.
She [the Mother] wanted to stop all publication. Robert Capa who was in charge of the business end at Magnum said the only solution is something I never did before in my life, and never did again, that is to sell the negatives. Magnum was created so that the photographer would own the right to the negatives. Capa said, “You do not want to be in trouble with the Mother and Magnum is on the verge of bankruptcy. To stop further publication of the photos, we will sell the negatives to the Mother.”
The price decided upon was what we sold to Illustrated for multiplied by five - as if we had sold it to these five other magazines for the same price.
There was only one other time any of these photos was published - in the photoportrait book published two years ago by Thames and Hudson.
Also part of the arrangement was that I could keep one set for myself.
That settled the matter. Capa was killed shortly thereafter. Much later, someone I saw in the U.S. accused me of spying…. I am not a disciple of the Mother or a member of the Ashram, but I came with respect and understanding. Pavitra is the one who arranged everything with the Mother.
I feel at home in India spiritually.
After the war I was taking photos of Georges Braque [the French painter] when he escaped from the Germans. Braque gave me the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Herrigel. I consider it a manual in photography. I have been practicing Zen with the camera all along. This brought me to Buddhism.
Now I am drawing. It is an introverted activity - meditation. Photography is an extroverted form. In photography you are something between a pickpocket and a tightrope walker. We [photographers] always steal something. The Leica is unobtrusive.
I am impatient - I have changed gears into drawing.
To be able to observe you must not be noticed.
My impressions of the Mother - a power woman. Sri Aurobindo was very remote. I had “a tremendous meditation” far away.
Statement by Dyuman extracted from How They came to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Bombay: The Mother Publishing House, 1990), p. 26.
From 1920 onwards there was no new photograph of Sri Aurobindo. The Mother arrived in April, 1920. We had only a photograph of her taken in Japan. She forbade any taking of photographs. Once Balubhai tried to photograph her and received a severe scolding. For thirty years no photograph was taken. But the Divine’s ways are inscrutable. On 23rd April 1950, Cartier-Bresson of Life magazine arrived. Through Pavitra he obtained permission to photograph Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. From 1.30 p.m. of 23rd April up to midday of 24th April he took about 300 photographs. The Darshan photograph in which we see Sri Aurobindo and the Mother sitting on the sofa was also taken by him. Had the Mother not permitted, we would have had no Darshan photograph, nor any photograph of Sri Aurobindo after 1920.
After a few months this photographer started to sell the Mother’s photographs. Instead of giving us the negatives, he sent us the message, “Give me six thousand dollars with one hand, take the negatives with the other.” I said that even for that one Darshan photograph I would be willing to pay six thousand dollars. Cartier-Bresson was paid and he gave us all the negatives.
Our photographers, headed by Pranab and Chimanbhai, made prints. They prepared forty albums which were sold for a thousand rupees each. Each photo in each album was numbered and blessed by the Mother. Only by the Divine Grace we got these photographs of the Lord and the Mother. There was a big demand for these forty albums. So we made another five hundred albums and sold them for five hundred rupees each. These albums too were also blessed by the Mother.
Interview with Jayantilal Parekh: Pondicherry, 27 March 1990. Interviewed by Bobbie Voit. Abridged and edited for clarity.
B.V. How did Cartier-Bresson come to photograph the Mother?
J.P. He came to Pondicherry on 23rd April and made a request to Mother’s secretary, Pavitra, his real name being Saint-Hilaire….
It was very strange for all of us when we came to know that the Mother gave him permission to take photographs of the Mother and anything else he wanted, because before this she had not allowed a single photograph of herself or Sri Aurobindo to be taken after 1920.
B.V. Was she aware of his reputation. Could that have influenced her?
J.P. Not unless Pavitra had told her something about him, but I don’t think she knew much about him. I also did not know much about his eminence as a photographer.
B.V. Did Cartier-Bresson have prior knowledge of Sri Aurobindo before he arrived in Pondicherry?
J.P. I think he must have come just like that, hearing Sri Aurobindo’s name. He came here and made a request and he was allowed. There were no formalities with the Mother or the Ashram. If the Mother said yes then the matter was over…. After he was given permission, he was quite free. During the Darshan he took any number of pictures. Then of Sri Aurobindo, when he was in his room, he took any number of pictures.
… He took playground pictures, and also when the Mother used to come down for blessings and again when she used to give flowers to people and when she looked at all the fruits and vegetables brought to her from all the gardens.
B.V. And you were with him when he was taking his pictures?
J.P. No. He had freedom to go anywhere, on his own, even when the Mother was giving blessings downstairs. He took pictures on all the occasions. He was completely free. If you see the album with his photographs, apart from Sri Aurobindo’s pictures, there are some pictures of Mother, but not very many. They are mostly when she was doing something. Portraits of her are not there. They are only when she was doing some work or attending to certain things. But in Sri Aurobindo’s case, portraits were taken sitting on the sofa, and I was told that the photographer was quite nervous when he was taking Sri Aurobindo’s picture. But that is what I have heard. I mean nobody can say whether he was nervous or otherwise. But people who were around at the time, Champaklal and others who were there, they said that he was feeling nervous.
So for these three days he was free….
I was going one day with him to the hotel. We were in a rickshaw and he jumped out and began to take pictures. As a photographer he did not confine himself only to Sri Aurobindo’s pictures; whatever his eye caught, he was trying to capture.
On the last one or two days that he was here I talked to him. Since we came to know after his coming that he was a very well-known photographer, I took interest in him and went about with him, and went to the station to see him off. But it was not that I was asked to look after him or any such thing. He was on his own.
B.V. Can you remember anything about how Cartier-Bresson worked?
J.P. Like any other photographer. His theory itself was not to make any kind of pre-arrangement. You have to find the right moment and then click. It is an instant vision, your vision flashes before your eyes and you click….
B.V. Did you show Cartier-Bresson around Pondicherry?
J.P. Yes, I moved about a little with him - because he was, I think, for three or four days around Pondicherry - not in the beginning when he came, but in the latter part when I heard that he was allowed to photograph. I was looking after him unofficially.
B.V. How did you perceive Cartier-Bresson? Was he easy to get along with?
J.P. Nothing eccentric. He behaved quite normally. I saw him off at the railway station. The train was the only way to get around in India in those days. Later on we saw some of his other photographs….
B.V. So when Cartier-Bresson asked the Mother to photograph Sri Aurobindo, he had carte blanche basically?
J.P. Yes, I think so.
B.V. Did she want to have any of the photographs?
J.P. Once a photographer takes a photograph he would naturally give a copy of the photograph. The only thing I heard about was the condition that the Mother would see the photographs before publication….
B.V. So when he left he took the negatives with him?
J.P. They were not developed. Naturally the exposed films were with him….
Now, as soon as Sri Aurobindo passed away, an article in an American magazine came out with these new pictures. It was not a very complimentary write-up…. So when the photographs appeared, we were not very happy. At the very first contact we had of him, he defaulted; he did not show the photographs before they were published.
B.V. So he didn’t abide by the agreement?
J.P. No. The actual understanding we had, that he would show the Mother and the Mother would approve of the pictures, was not observed.
B.V. Along with her asking to see the photos before publishing, did she make any arrangement for having as her property some of the negatives?
J.P. No. You see, that was not her way of working. She never made such conditions with artists. When she gave permission, it ultimately depended upon the artist to decide how he should go about it - whether he felt he should hand over the originals to her or do it differently. It was only after Sri Aurobindo passed away that the question of acquiring the negatives arose, because there were no other pictures of Sri Aurobindo after 1920. It is at that stage that I came into the picture….
At that time we had a friend in America who had started publishing Sri Aurobindo’s books in the U.S.A. The Life Divine had already come out and one or two other books were also getting ready. So I immediately wrote to him that Mother was eager to get the photographs from the people at the Magnum laboratory, which I think even now exists. Tata contacted Magnum and they demanded $6000 or something like that. I am not sure about the figure….
Mr. Tata wanted to bargain, because he didn’t want to pay the price they asked for and he wrote back saying that he was trying to see if Magnum would come down in their price. When Mother heard this she immediately sent word by telegram telling him not to bargain, although she said that the price was high…. So you see, Mother did not bargain with Magnum and she purchased all the negatives. Then some of the negatives were copied here, so that the originals may remain in good condition and the photographers, four or five who were active in those days, could work with them. They were asked to make prints. First sample prints were made, from which those that the Mother selected were to go into an album that she wanted made. In those days, I used to go out to Madras and other places for Ashram work. Mother wanted a certain type of material for making the albums. They were to be in green leather. I made arrangements to get certain quantities from Madras and the albums were made here in the Ashram.
B.V. You say that the negatives were copied? You had the original negatives and they were copied, so the prints were actually made from second generation negatives?
J.P. Because there were three or four photographers and the whole idea was that the original negatives should not be spoiled. In the beginning they did use the original negatives, but then they realized that if they used them constantly they would get scratched, and in fact the scratches began to appear after the first uses. So they kept them aside and later the copied negatives were used. The original albums were made from the first negatives. Three or four photographers were there and the work was good, also the printing. Later they had to turn out hundreds of pictures and make them available. The work of copying negatives was not so good then….
Here the impression has been: Why didn’t the Mother allow her own photographers to do the work? Some of them could have turned out some good photographs. But the question does not arise. In the 1930’s two attempts were made by some amateur and inexperienced photographers of taking the Mother’s picture without her knowledge, but the results were not good. These attempts were made with a box camera. The first and last serious attempt was made by Cartier-Bresson.
Interview with Robi Ganguli: Pondicherry, 28 March 1990. Interviewed by Bobbie Voit. Abridged and edited for clarity.
B.V. Can you tell us about your recollections of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s visit to Pondicherry?
R.G. Well, frankly it’s difficult. I think he came in April 1950. He came a little earlier than darshan day. He had come originally to Jaipur to do a wedding. He came from Jaipur to Pondicherry. He had brought some books of his work. In Pondicherry and the Ashram not many people were interested in photography, but the Mother was very much interested.
B.V. At the time he was already famous?
R.G. He had already become famous - not as much as after his book on China and The Decisive Moment. He had brought two small volumes, one with a French title. I forgot the title.
B.V. According to Jayantilal he came in April during the darshan.
R.G. He came a little earlier.
B.V. He stayed at Hotel d’Europe?
R.G. Yes, first he stayed there and then he shifted to Golconde. I and a friend of mine were working for Photo Patel at that time and he came to us and we had a lot of discussions. It was really when Mother saw that book - the book of his photographs that he had brought - that she allowed him to take pictures. Till then she never allowed any pictures to be taken of her or Sri Aurobindo, and even he was not permitted initially to take pictures of Sri Aurobindo. First he took some pictures of Mother giving blessings and one or two rolls were processed in our studio. This was just to see if the results were O.K. because the light was very contrasty here. He was not accustomed to this type of light. He started taking pictures then - the balcony darshan. In the morning Mother used to come on the balcony at the back of the Ashram, and devotees would gather about six or six-thirty. So first he was allowed to take pictures of the balcony darshan and then after that Mother saw his book of photographs. It was a book that had already become famous at that time. It was one of his first publications; he had not yet published The Decisive Moment or his book on China. When Mother saw that book, she first gave him permission to take pictures of her and of the Ashramites in general.
He and I used to move around together. Not all the time, but often. He was a very, very interesting personality. He was a painter to start with, and when he started photography he used to take portraits with a studio camera. Then suddenly he discovered the Leica, the 35mm miracle. He changed the face of photography altogether…
He would be sitting chatting with us and suddenly before we knew it he was taking our pictures. We were not even aware of it, he was so unobtrusive.
He was here for about a fortnight, about twenty to twenty-five days. He was here only once. He stayed on for the darshan hoping to get permission to take Sri Aurobindo’s picture. Till the last day we did not know. But on darshan day at the last moment he was called, he was given permission to take pictures of the darshan. Cartier-Bresson, myself and Shivan rushed up. We were just helping him with the stand, because he didn’t carry a stand and the light was very dim, and in those days films were not as fast as those today. One hundred ASA was about the maximum speed you could get. He exposed a roll.
Next day he was given permission to take pictures in Sri Aurobindo’s room and he went alone there. Sri Aurobindo was sitting on that sofa, just under the clock. We were outside on the staircase. When he came out, he was just perspiring. We asked him, “How did it go?” He said, “I have never seen a man like this. He was sitting there absolutely immobile.” In a sense he felt something, such tremendous quiet and peace. He was very nervous, he said. While he was taking pictures, he moved around a little and he finished one roll. But there was a tremendous sort of elation in him that he had taken the pictures.
It was all one session, the 25th of April - the day after the darshan. Champaklal said that after the session Sri Aurobindo said, “It’s all over.” Cartier-Bresson was really nervous. Sri Aurobindo gave a tremendous smile afterwards which Cartier-Bresson did not tell us about. That’s what we heard from Champaklal. After that he went to some other places in India. I suppose he was still shooting.
Before he left he promised that he would send all the contact sheets…. But nothing came. He had said that nothing would be published until Mother had seen the pictures and approved them.
B.V. That was at her request?
R.G. Yes, yes.
B.V. That was the only thing she requested?
R.G. I cannot tell you that, but she had insisted on that. He was given permission to take pictures on that condition. But he was telling us before that he was part of this Magnum group and he sent his rolls there. They processed them and all the marketing was done by Magnum. He was all the time on the move. He told us, “I don’t know how it is going to work out because I am most of the time on the move. They have promised that they will send the prints here, but I don’t know how exactly it is going to work out.” He was going to talk with his associates. I think he was going to meet Robert Capa. He was one of the five Magnum photographers then….
For a long time there was no news from him. In fact we never again heard from him. But in one German magazine some pictures were published and we got a little upset. The Mother wasn’t angry or anything because the pictures were really very nice. Then Tata, who used to live in the States, took an interest…. Tata was asked to contact Cartier-Bresson and find out what was the matter. In the meanwhile on the 5th of December Sri Aurobindo passed away and then we needed those negatives because there were no pictures. It was really then that we understood why Mother had given him permission to take pictures of Sri Aurobindo when no one else was allowed. Afterwards we managed to get the negatives from the States. The negatives were purchased from this Magnum agency. I have forgotten the price. The Mother was very happy to get the negatives. I think the negatives are still here.
B.V. So he never sent the contact sheets?
R.G. No, he did not. I was one of the persons making the contact sheets when the negatives came. The contact sheets did not come, but all the negatives were sent.
B.V. Magnum may still have some prints?
R.G. They may have, but as it was an outright sale they may not. The copyright remains with Cartier-Bresson still.
B.V. The copyright remains with Cartier-Bresson?
R.G. Yes, because when the negatives came they were all stamped copyright Cartier-Bresson, Magnum agencies. So he has the right to publish; yet he had given all the negatives. You see, he was a very decent man, a perfect gentleman. He came from a very good family in France, one of the aristocratic families of Paris. In regard to photography he completely changed our outlook. It was really a revelation. It was only after his arrival here that we understood what photography is. Elsewhere in India this happened much later, because people were very much steeped in the British pictorialism school. But now he is regarded as the father of modern photojournalism.
He was allowed to take the darshan pictures at the last moment. It was at the end of the darshan that he was called. I was by his side. He was against using flash during his stay here. He took one or two pictures with flash and he was not happy.
B.V. When he took the darshan photographs did he use a tripod?
R.G. He used a monopod, and you will see there is a slight shake in the pictures because the light was very dim. And the fastest film in those days was 100 ASA.
B.V. But you didn’t use any extra incandescent lights?
R.G. No. He was a believer in natural light. I have never seen another with such sheerness of vision. The perfect composition every time, every element in place. His photographs stand individually. They’re complete works.
B.V. He did not use any lights for the portrait of Sri Aurobindo in the chaise?
R.G. No lights.
B.V. It must have been a very slow shutter speed.
R.G. He was using a tripod then, the next day. He didn’t use one at darshan because it was at the last moment. He was hoping that he would get a chance.
Account of Chimanbhai Patel: Pondicherry, August 1990. Compiled by Arup Mitra from notes. Edited slightly for clarity.
Cartier-Bresson’s family was known to Mother while she was in France. This family was well-known because of their involvement with the production of thread. Cartier-Bresson called on Mother several times during his stay in Pondicherry. In fact, he took the first series of photographs of the Mother since she arrived here. The ones taken by Dara were of course obtained clandestinely. It was after much persuasion that Mother finally agreed to let Cartier-Bresson take Sri Aurobindo’s photograph.
I heard at the time that when Cartier-Bresson went up to Sri Aurobindo’s room, Champaklal-ji asked him if he would not like to take pictures of the Master during his day-to-day activities. In that way the photographs might have captured the different moods of Sri Aurobindo. But instead Cartier-Bresson insisted that the Master should sit in his armchair and he went around taking photos from different angles of the same pose.
Regarding some of the pictures that came out unclear and out of focus, Mother herself commented to me that she was not at all surprised, as the hands of the photographer were shaking like leaves in the presence of Sri Aurobindo. He seems to have quickly gone through the process of taking the pictures and hastily retreated as he was alleged to have been quite ill at ease in front of the Master. It is indeed sad that there was not another opportunity of getting better photographs of the Master.
Now let me come to the part where I became involved with these photographs. I was away in Madras at the time…. Dyuman rang up my host there and left a message urging me to return to Pondicherry as soon as possible. In those days there was no bus service, so I took the train. On reaching Pondicherry, I found someone waiting for me at the station. He told me to call on Mother immediately without even going through the formality of a bath. I rushed to her. She showed me the horde of negatives that Cartier-Bresson had sent. Evidently these had not come free of charge. I heard then that it cost Mother almost $20,000 to obtain them. Later I heard the figure was a more realistic $8000 or so.
However, the negatives were there and I was asked by Mother to make prints within half an hour. I said that they could be made ready within half an hour, but they would not be properly washed. Mother instructed me to bring the prints anyway within half an hour without bothering to wash them well. I did this and took the prints to her. I cannot remember what Mother said when she saw these prints.
It may be pertinent to note here that recently while going through Mother’s collection of photographs kept in the room of the late Krishnalal, I discovered these very prints, which may be termed as the original ones. They were in 6x9 size and were yellow with age because the chemicals had not been properly washed out.
As far as my knowledge of the thing goes, the prints made by Cartier-Bresson were published in Life magazine.
Later on, in order to make photographic albums according to Mother’s wish and at the same time not spoil these original negatives, I was asked by her to try and make duplicate negatives. I had to buy a roll of one thousand feet to try this out since shorter rolls were not available in the market. After trying out the new technique I succeeded in obtaining good results and made five copies of the entire set. It is beyond doubt that the original negatives of Henri Cartier-Bresson were virtually never utilised at all, and that these are preserved in impeccable condition by Pranab.
Account of Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, September 1990. Compiled by Arup Mitra from notes. Edited slightly for clarity.
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s visit was arranged through Pavitra-da. Cartier-Bresson was the representative of an American press agency, the name of which I have forgotten.
At the time of this Frenchman’s visit to Pondicherry, a rumour had spread somehow in the West that Sri Aurobindo was no more, and that during the occasions of darshan, the sage’s dummy would be propped up beside the Mother to create an eye-wash that he was still alive.
Hence, Mother thought that it would be a good idea to allow this famous photographer to obtain pictures of Sri Aurobindo so that he could carry back home real proof that Sri Aurobindo was still alive.
In regard to what Chimanbhai has said about Champaklal’s suggestion to Cartier-Bresson, I would like to say that in those days it was the Mother who took all the decisions about matters related to Sri Aurobindo. So, it would hardly seem plausible that Champaklal could take such an important decision and invite Cartier-Bresson to take the pictures of the Master during his day-to-day activities without the knowledge of the Mother. At least I had not heard of such a suggestion at that time or after that.
It was agreed between Mother and the photographer that once the negatives of the pictures that the photographer took were developed, they would be sent to her. After the session of photography was completed, I remember Chimanbhai offering to develop the film in his studio. Cartier-Bresson refused this flatly, saying “I am sure that Mother would not like it!” This way he got away with it.
Months passed but the negatives did not arrive. Pavitra-da was asked to write to him and follow up the matter. Still, no reply was received. In the meantime some French and English magazines began to publish these recent photos of Sri Aurobindo, which had not been seen or approved by the Mother. Even the Illustrated Weekly of India printed the photographs in one of their issues. Then Pavitra-da wrote a strong letter urging Cartier-Bresson to send the original negatives, in reply to which a set of small prints was sent. But the curious part about these prints was that the faces of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were deliberately erased. This obviously was a ploy to make copying impossible.
Some time after Sri Aurobndo left his body it became clear that the photographer himself or his employers in the United States were after money. So a letter was drafted saying that money was no criterion and that they should inform us of the exact amount they expected.
In all a sum of 18,000 had to be paid. I am quite sure of the figure but not sure about whether it was dollars or rupees. As it was an exorbitant price, Mother decided to make albums of these photographs to be sold for Rs. 1000 and Rs. 500.This way, the cost could be recovered. This scheme proved very fruitful. It is worth noting that even to this day these last pictures of Sri Aurobindo are selling very well. Chimanbhai was asked to make five sets of copy negatives from the originals to enable the five photographers of the Ashram, namely, Vidyavrata, Venkatesh, Chimanbhai, myself and another to make photographs for the albums. Also, this way, the original negatives could be prevented from being over-used. These original negatives are in my custody. We use the originals only for making very big enlargements or to make good prints for making negatives.
However, to come back to the main story. It was much after Sri Aurobindo’s passing away that the Cartier-Bresson negatives were received. There were seventeen negatives of Sri Aurobindo alone (and one of his room) and ten darshan negatives. Only one of the darshan negatives was clear enough to print. I cannot remember the exact date or month that the negatives were received.
I have learnt one lesson from this regrettable incident and that is never again to trust press photographers.
Let me add an interesting anecdote related to this matter. Much later, one day, the Mother alluded to the pictures taken by Cartier-Bresson. She said, “You know, had I allowed the Ashram photographers to take the photos of Sri Aurobindo, I am quite sure they would have done a better job!”
II. The Photographs Taken after Sri Aurobindo’s Passing on 5 December 1950
Account of Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, September 1990. Compiled by Arup Mitra from notes. Edited slightly for clarity.
On the night of the 4th to 5th of December, 1950, I was sleeping, as usual, in Mother’s interview-room. This room is located on the first floor of the northern side of the Ashram main building, above Nirod-da’s tea room and Debu’s room. Here Mother used to come to take dinner with me after giving Sri Aurobindo his meal.
It must have been at around 2 or 2.15 in the morning when Mother woke me up to inform me that Sri Aurobindo had left his body. To be frank, I was not expecting this kind of news even though I was aware of the Master’s grave illness. Moreover I had been informed that the previous evening he had got up from bed and walked a short distance to his sofa where he sat for a while and reportedly even cut jokes with some of his attendants. In addition, like others in the Ashram, I too believed that one day Sri Aurobindo would transform his physical body by virtue of his sadhana.
Mother took me to Sri Aurobindo’s room and I saw Sri Aurobindo’s body lying on his bed. She asked me if I wished to take photographs of the departed Master. I answered no. Then she asked me to inform the Ashram photographers so that they could take the last pictures.
Hence, in the middle of that night, I went around to the residences of Vidyavrata, Chimanbhai and Venkatesh, to inform them of the Mother’s wish. After that, I returned to the Ashram.
The photographers arrived shortly. I cannot recall having seen Robi Ganguli. It is certain that I did not go personally to inform him. Dr. Sanyal, who was proficient in photography, made suggestions, helping each of the photographers choose their angles. I remember also that Viswajit, using an unsophisticated camera, took at least one picture of the Master’s feet within a day or two.
I left after I saw that the photographers had started their work. I did not find it necessary to remain associated with the work any more. I did not visit Sri Aurobindo’s room after that. However, I was present during the performance of the last rites.
Some of the negatives of Chimanbhai and Venkatesh are still with me. Only Vidyavrata did not part with his negatives when Tara, in her efforts to centralize the negatives, approached him on behalf of the Ashram.
It may be pertinent to mention here that some of Chimanbhai’s negatives of the Mother had become damaged with time before coming to me.
Account of Vidyavrata Arya, January 1990. Compiled by Arup Mitra from notes. Abriged and edited slightly for clarity.
At around 2.30 on the morning of the fifth of December,1950, Mona Sarkar came to summon me. I was asleep then. Pranab was sending word to me through Mona that Sri Aurobindo had just passed away. I was asked to report immediately at the Ashram building with my photographic equipment to take the last photos of the Master.
On learning of Sri Aurobindo’s demise I felt as if the earth had suddenly disappeared from beneath my feet….
I quickly dressed and gathered my camera equipment. I took my German Rolleiflex camera with an 80 mm f3.5 Xenotar lens and three rolls of 6×6 film. It did not take me more than a few minutes to reach the Ashram, for I was living at that time in the same house where I still live almost forty years later - that is, the Santal House where Nishikanto also lived. It is located west of the Dining Room and adjacent to the General Post Office. Mona had earlier mentioned to me that Nolinida’s gate, on the eastern side of the Ashram, would be open. This gate had in fact been kept open for us and there was someone manning it, but I cannot recollect who it was.
I reached the Ashram at about a quarter to three. When I went up to Sri Aurobindo’s room, I discovered that I was the second person to arrive, the first being Viswajit. Soon the other Ashram photographers, Chimanbhai, Robi Ganguli and Venkatesh, also came. I do not remember if any other photographers were there.
When we had all gathered, we were told that the Mother had gone back to her room and shut herself up.
The atmosphere was tense within the room where Sri Aurobindo’s body lay in state. There was pin-drop silence as no one moved or talked. No noise was coming from outside either, for not a soul was stirring at this early hour. Among the people who were present other than the photographers, I can recall only two names - Dr. Sanyal and Champaklal. I touched Sri Aurobindo’s feet in obeisance. The feet were quite warm.
Soon we got down to work. I took several photos from various angles. I was the only person who slid into the narrow gap of approximately two feet between the northern wall of the room and Sri Aurobindo’s bed to obtain what turned out to be the most dramatic picture of the series. In its only the outlines of the Master’s upper body are lit against a dark base. I myself had not brought any lighting equipment, so I used that of Chimanbhai Patel.
I took some pictures standing on a stool from beside the bed so that I could get a top-angle view for some of my photos. I must admit that at first I hesitated to do this. Inside myself, I felt a sort of guilt, as if I would be showing my disrespect to Sri Aurobindo by climbing on a pedestal beside which his body lay. But somehow a strong feeling urged me forth and I told myself that this too should be treated as Mother’s work. So I slipped to Champaklal’s side and whispered my plan in his ear. Quite spontaneously he brought out a foot-stool for me. I seem to have been the only person who took a full-length photo of the entire body as well as a photo exclusively of the feet. It took one hour to take the photographs.
At about four o’clock I left the Ashram and on reaching home I immediately developed the rolls, but soon began to feel that something was missing. So at seven I went back to Sri Aurobindo’s room once again to take one more series of photos - this time in soft natural daylight - before the sadhaks had begun to pour in to have a last darshan. These photos have some of Sri Aurobindo’s attendants in them, such as Dr. Satyendra, Dr. Becharlal and Champaklal. It was I, in fact, who asked Champaklal to sit near Sri Aurobindo’s bed so that I could have him in the frame. I requested to do this because I felt that since he had done so much for the Master, he should have the privilege of being included in a photograph with Sri Aurobindo.
Let me mention that before shooting these photographs, I again touched the Master’s feet and noted with surprise that these were still quite warm. I was also able to see a strange glow around his body in daylight; this glow had not been visible at night.
After printing our photographs, we photographers separately went to the Mother to show her our work. I went to her at around ten in the morning. She selected several of my photographs. I later learned that she had also selected one of Venkatesh’s. It seems that she did not feel that the rest of my photographs or Venkatesh’s, or those of the other photographers had succeeded. When the Mother came across one of my photographs, a profile portrait that is now widely circulated and kept in the vertical position, she exclaimed that it had “the Power”. She then requested us to make five thousand printed copies of this picture for general distribution.
We soon set to work in Chiman’s laboratory round the clock and got the quarter-size (9x12 cm) prints ready in time for distribution on the tenth, the day after Sri Aurobindo’s body had been put to rest.
I took thirty-six shots in all, that is three rolls of film: twenty-four photos at night and twelve in the morning. If I remember correctly, Robi Ganguly did not take more than a few shots. I would like to make it clear that Mother never issued any orders to us not to make prints of the photos that she did not select at the time. I believe that the negatives of these pictures are still in the custody of the respective photographers.
Later I took one more roll of photographs, twelve shots in which I tried to catch the moods of the devotees when they stood in queue for a last darshan of the Master and when Sri Aurobindo’s casket was brought down for laying in the Samadhi.
Account of Chimanbhai Patel, August 1990. Compiled by Arup Mitra from notes. Abriged and edited slightly for clarity.
On the morning of the 5th of December, 1950, Pranab called at my residence to inform me about Sri Aurobindo’s passing away. I cannot recall the exact time but it was surely before six o’clock. Pranab asked me to bring along my photographic equipment.
Therefore, I took my Rolleiflex camera fitted with a Tessar 3.5 lens. I did not take flash-guns. Instead I took a number of flood lamps fitted with 500-watt bulbs.
When I heard that Sri Aurobindo had passed away, I did not feel any emotional pang as I became instantly preoccupied with the duty that was bestowed upon me. But I can recollect quite distinctly that an emotional turmoil started as time passed....
However, I must admit that through Dr. Satyavrata Sen and others, we had come to know that the Master had been suffering from some kind of urinary infection. The gravity of the illness was understood by me on the evening of the 3rd, when during her visit to the Playground, Mother had insisted that everyone remain quiet as she felt that there was too much noise.
Now to come back to the narration. I took my equipment and straight went to the Ashram and entered through the Meditation Hall gate. There was someone there at the gate but I cannot recollect who it was. From there I went up to Sri Aurobindo’s room.
I remember clearly that Mother was sitting in the middle room beside Sri Aurobindo’s, where the tiger skins and the Mother’s paintings are displayed. She looked very dejected. She was stooping in front with a hand on her forehead. But she did not notice me as I entered.
I found that Venkatesh and Vidyavrata were already there before me. I cannot recollect whether Robi was there or joined our group anytime thereafter. Other than the photographers Champaklal was there too.
I did not notice the much-talked-about glow around Sri Aurobindo’s body. But the colour of his body itself was almost golden. Moreover, the oiliness on his body remained throughout the four days that the body was kept in state, so that it seemed to my eyes that he wasn’t dead at all.
We stayed for about half an hour in Sri Aurobindo’s room.
After I developed my negatives and obtained a batch of prints, I took them over to show Mother. She saw them and suggested to me that I should try to take the pillow from one particular negative and make fresh prints. So, I bleached off the pillow with chemicals and made new prints according to Mother’s wish. These she took and arranged neatly along her bed and left them there. In those days Mother used to stay in the hall overlooking the Samadhi over Dyuman’s room, through which we have to pass in order to reach her second floor apartment which she occupied later on. Her bed used to be kept along the southern wall on the left side of the door leading to the staircase, and it was there that she kept the prints. After Sri Aurobindo was laid to rest she asked me to pay a daily visit there. There was a peculiar thing that I noticed. The photos were never disturbed or their order changed so that it struck me that Mother was not sleeping in her bed. I asked her out of curiosity and she confirmed that in fact she never slept or lay on her bed and that a rest on her straight-back chair was enough for her. The size of the prints was 10×12 inches and these along with all my negatives are preserved with Pranab to the best of my knowledge. It is not possible for me to say now how many pictures I took in all.
It was possibly a negative among the ones taken by me that Mother asked either five or ten thousand prints to be made for distribution to the public. If memory serves me right, these were distributed on the 10th after Sri Aurobindo’s body was put to rest. But before this, sepia-toning was done. The prints were all made in my photographic laboratory at my residence, number 4 Rue Saint-Martin.
I took pictures also during the entombment ceremony. The French Governor along with his cabinet colleagues and senior officials stood in full ceremonial uniforms in front of Dyuman’s room. I noticed also Suresh Chakravarty, who was among the first batch who arrived with Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, coming out of the crowd and gaping at the casket while it was being carried by the pall-bearers. It happened when the group of pall-bearers emerged through the northern-side staircase of the Ashram building. It was perhaps his pose that drew my attention. He bent forward and was looking up at the casket as it passed in front of him. There was an expression of disbelief over his face, as if he could not fully understand what was happening. What was of interest to me is that this gentleman, too, died shortly thereafter.
Account of Robi Ganguli, January 1990. Compiled by Arup Mitra from notes. Abriged and edited slightly.
At about 2.30 on the morning of the 5th of December 1950, Pranab came and informed Chimanbhai that Sri Aurobindo had passed away and asked him to come prepared to take the last photographs. After that, Chiman dropped by at my residence to call me. Then we gathered our photographic equipment and dashed to the Ashram. I lived in the same old house where my brothers and sister still live. The house is adjacent to the Ashram Playground, on the south-east corner of the block.
The previous evening I had chatted with Dr. Satyavrata Sen, a doctor attending on Sri Aurobindo. Therefore I already knew that the condition of the Master was very serious. In fact, I clearly remember that Dr. Sen had mentioned that on the evening of the 4th, Sri Aurobindo, who had thus far refused to take injections, agreed to the doctor’s request to accept an injection. So, the moment I found Chiman at my house at such an unearthly hour, I rightly guessed that Sri Aurobindo had passed away.
Chiman and I used to work as a team in those days. We both dashed towards the Ashram carrying with us certain lighting equipment as well as our cameras. I had a Rolleiflex camera like that of Vidyavrata, while Chiman took his 35 mm camera with him.
I do not recollect through which gate we entered the Ashram main building. Our minds were very disturbed at the time; speaking for myself I can assure you that I had no eye for such details on our way.
When I entered Sri Aurobindo’s abode through the door at the top of the staircase leading from the Meditation Hall, I instantly became petrified by the sight of Mother sitting on a chair in the central room - the room in which her paintings adorn the walls and the tiger skins decorate the divan. She was seated between the two doors on the southern side of the narrow room with her eyes shut, lost in deep meditation. I have never seen her like that again. To me she looked like the personification of the Mother Kali herself - so powerful was her appearance. I stood before her for some time.
I do not remember whether Vidyavrata arrived before, but I certainly recall noticing Venkatesh in the room as I entered. I did not touch Sri Aurobindo’s body, but simply offered my pranam by folding my hands in veneration. The atmosphere in the room was charged with an impregnable serenity.
Among those in the room other than the photographers were Dr. Sanyal, Champaklal and, I think, Pujalal and Dyumanbhai. We started taking photographs. I remembered that I climbed upon a stool beside Sri Aurobindo’s bed to obtain a top-angle view of his body. It may be that Vidyavrata was the first one to do so. We also took pictures of the Master’s feet. We had taken with us low wattage flood lamps - 250-watt lamps instead of the usual 500-watt lamps used inside studios. This was chiefly because we were not very sure of the power supply inside the Master’s room. We were also afraid that the heat coming from our lamps might harm the body.
When the Mother saw our pictures the next day, she made various comments about certain prints that we had brought. Around the 7th, she selected one of the profile images of the Master by Vidyavrata and asked us to make five thousand prints of it for general distribution. We printed these copies in Chiman’s laboratory, which was in his house, and bleached them and gave them a sepia tone in the Playground. The prints were made principally by Chiman and myself. These prints were distributed by the Mother on the 10th, the day after the Samadhi.
What Vidyavrata has said about the glow around Sri Aurobindo’s body is correct. Like him I did not see this ethereal glow at night but only the next morning. At the Mother’s suggestion Chiman tried to procure from Madras a roll of colour film, which had for some time reached the commercial market. Perhaps the Mother thought that the glow around the body, which though visible to our eyes had eluded the black and white negatives, could possibly be captured in the colour shots. But unfortunately even in a big city like Madras, these colour rolls were not available.
I distinctly remember that only four of us took photographs. None other than Vidyavrata, Venkatesh, Chiman and myself were involved.
On the 9th when Sri Aurobindo’s mortal remains were put into the Samadhi, the four of us also took pictures of the ceremony.
Later Tara Jauhar pleaded with Chiman and me to give our negatives, so that they could be stored together; both of us agreed to this. I believe that these negatives are still stored in the P.E.D.