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Historical Representations Through a Lens

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

By Shilpi Goswami and Deepak Bharathan
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2012, pp. 83, £25.00

By Kavita Iyengar
Bloomsbury, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 107, Rs. 495.00

Text by Subhadra Sen Gupta
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 242, Rs. 995.00


The three books reviewed largely deal with the representation of history—partly (as in the first book) or exclusively (as in the other two books) through the medium of historical architecture.   The first book is essentially a catalogue of an exhibition centred around an album of photographs of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry, taken in 1950 by Henri Cartier-Bresson. The authors describe it as ‘an attempt to unearth the “lesser-known” visual history of the city, deeply inspired by the coming of the French’.   The intention of the publication, as stated on the book jacket is, ‘to reveal a non-linear, yet credible visual history of Pondicherry’. However, the article interspersed with a large number of images does follow a basic linear chronology. Beginning with ‘the story of early photography in India’, it goes on to discuss Cartier-Bresson, his photographs of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and the album that it resulted in. It then briefly notes the influences on, and the experiments in ‘Ashram Photography’ from 1948-83, and culminates in a note on the dynamic relation between images, archives and history. Several pages of photographs—juxtaposed in a different order from those in Goswami and Bharathan’s article—are featured before the concluding essay by Professor Kittu Reddy, on the philosophy of the Ashram with reference to the world, and its role in nurturing the arts, particularly photography. The shifting chronological and spatial order of the images in the book, while certainly interesting and novel, makes it a trifle difficult to navigate and process.   The publication raises several pertinent points of interest worthy of further study. Its main thrust is certainly the hitherto unpublished Bresson Album, which features ‘candid’ and formal views of the founders of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, annotated with notes from Bresson’s private diary provided by the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. While the spaces and rooms of the Ashram form a backdrop to the images of the reclusive and rarely photographed Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa (The Mother), the inclusion of 19th century photographs of Pondi-cherry ‘before’ Bresson—many of them by unknown photographers—where architecture takes centre-stage and the two archival maps from the Alkazi Collection, offer an expansive glimpse of the settlement and area around Pondicherry. The selected work of the Ashram photographers, part of a movement contemporary with and active ‘after’ Bresson, constitutes a personal portrayal of the residents of the Ashram and Pondicherry as well ...

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