India and the Death of Mahatma Gandhi • Henri Cartier-Bresson • Magnum Photos

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Religion

India and the Death of Mahatma Gandhi

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s classic photo-essay captured India at a critical time in its history

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson Crowds gathered between Birla House and the cremation grounds on the Jumna River, during Gandhi’s funeral. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Throughout his career, Henri Cartier-Bresson defined himself as the antithesis of a traditional photojournalist, famously writing: “I would like to stress my point of view: I have never been a storyteller.” The considerable influence of Surrealism on his practice is evident in his regard for photography as only being of any relevance as a tool for “instant drawing”. It was his colleague and Magnum Photos co-founder Robert Capa who encouraged Cartier-Bresson to make more documentary work, and indeed to visit India in the first place.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi at Birla House, the day before his assassination. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi dictating a message at Birla House, the residence where he spent his last days and in which he was assassinated, just before breaking his fast. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi leaving Meherauli, a Muslim shrine. This was one of his last appearances during the time between the end of his fast and his death. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson An interview with Gandhi at Birla House, the day before his assassination. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Cartier-Bresson initially set out to create a photographic essay that would capture the essence of the country, its past and present at a time of rapid social change. India’s recent independence from Britain had quickly deteriorated into unrest with the partition of the country into Hindu India and Muslim East and West Pakistan. At the centre of these upheavals was Mahatma Gandhi, who, after campaigning for India’s independence, was now protesting for the end of the violence between Hindus and Muslims. Cartier-Bresson had exclusive access to Gandhi, recording the activist’s hunger strike in protest of riots in which millions died. However, with the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948, the day after he had taken his portrait, he unexpectedly found himself witness to a major historical event. The photographs Cartier-Bresson made in the aftermath of Gandhi’s death offer a unique visual record of the event, and epitomize, although perhaps not intentionally, what makes an iconic photo-essay.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi’s body at Birla House, the day after his assassination. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi's secretary watching the first flames of the funeral pyre. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi’s cremation on the banks of the Jumna River. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Crowds wait to pay last respects as Gandhi's funeral cortege approaches the cremation ground. Delhi, India, 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

Cartier-Bresson resisted the label of journalist, however he was both deeply interested in and possessed of a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of photojournalism, which he laid out in the introduction to his book The Decisive Moment; “To me photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” His photo story the ‘Death of Gandhi’ embodies this dual-pronged approach, both acting to capture a significant historic moment and formally expressing the anguish and sorrow of the event.

Henri Cartier-Bresson Gandhi’s ashes being transported to the River Ganges to be scattered. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson People waiting for the train carrying Gandhi’s ashes. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Crowds gathered between Birla House and the cremation grounds, throwing flowers. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Crowds lining the railway tracks to pay homage to Gandhi's ashes. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson Inside the train carrying Gandhi's ashes to the River Ganges. Crowds lined the railway tracks to see and touch Gandhi's ashes, and pay a last tribute to their leader. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos
Henri Cartier-Bresson A crowd on the banks of the River Ganges watching the scattering of Gandhi’s ashes. Delhi, India. 1948. © Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

This story was also published in the book Magnum Stories, published by Phaidon, where an extensive extract from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment can be read. A very limited number of copies of Magnum Stories are available from the Magnum Shop, signed by Magnum photographers.