Margaret Bourke-White's photos of India show a nation in transition.

America has produced many women photographers of distinction. Among the finest documentary photographers of the 1930s, 1940s and the early 1950s was Margaret Bourke-White who, apart from possessing the required skill and sensitivity, also had a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Working with a cumbersome 4”x5” sheet film camera, a heavy tripod and, when necessary, a flash gun with bulbs, she often took exceptional Black & White pictures of people, places and events; the last of which were often traumatic, and sometime painful beyond words. She first came to India in 1946 soon after her pictures of the endless corpses of innocent Jews at the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, when the Second World War ended in 1945, caught the world's attention.

Influences

Bourke-White recorded a nation-in-the-making in India and met the leaders of the freedom struggle against the British. Mahatma Gandhi, predictably, made the deepest impression on her and she photographed him on several occasions; her first attempt at catching him at his spinning-wheel nearly ended in disaster with technical snags preventing her from taking a picture till by force of will she overcame the odds. Her courage during the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, when 4000 people lost their lives in a single day, could also be interpreted as extreme foolhardiness. Sunil Janah, photographer of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and a fine one at that, tried to discourage her from going out into the streets to take pictures, saying that it would mean sure death at the hands of the insane mobs that roamed the streets of Calcutta in response to the call for ‘Direct Action' by the Muslim League and those countering it representing the Hindu Mahasabha. Her pictures, even 64 years after the event, remind us of how Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lost their sanity and slaughtered each other. Purely from the photographic point of view, one is also intrigued as to what equipment she had used? Surely it was not the heavy 4 inch x 5 inch sheet film camera? Most likely it was a Zeiss Ikon 21/4" x 21/4" roll film camera that gave 12 shots per roll. Her pictures of the Partition of India are among the most moving and are testimony to her humanity and her total commitment to photo-journalism.

Bourke-White responded to various social and political situations with alacrity but always guided by a finely honed intuition. Her photographs of a rapidly changing India still caught in the throes of tradition are proof of this. She went to the south to especially understand the support that the Communists enjoyed among the peasantry and the workers. She also photographed with deadpan humour the activities of the Bombay stock-brokers, the scions of Princely India and, with a certain rectitude and respect, rural India. Perhaps the wittiest picture in the collection is one of an attractive air hostess, most likely an Anglo-Indian, being the subject of attention of a smiling Sikh gentleman (left) with a shy Muslim gentleman (centre) and a disapproving Hindu gentleman (right) who wears his upper caste identity on his sleeve.

It was important, in retrospect, for her to be more than a photographer of disasters, she would also have liked to have been a witness to the transformations, and the seeming immutabilities in the world around her. After the insanities of the Second World War, India, at first, may have appeared to be a welcome relief and then a mixed bag of discoveries. Her Indian pictures, however inadvertently, revealed more than any erudite thesis, the contradictions, the confusions and the hopes of an emerging nation. There lay the great strength of her pictures.

Intersecting lives

On the non-photographic side was her affair with the dynamic Indian journalist Frank Moraes whose wife Beryl was both unstable and wildly jealous and eventually ended up in an asylum for the insane. Frank and Beryl's son Dom, destined to become a famous poet and journalist, wrote later movingly about the meeting between his unhinged mother and Bourke-White who, not unexpectedly, kept her composure.

The volume has a foreword by Gopalkrishna Gandhi and an interesting essay by Vicki Goldberg on Margaret Bourke-White's life, though it falls a bit short on insights into her work. The first 31 pages are numbered; the rest of the book containing the pictures is not. How does one interpret this? As mere eccentricity or plain sloppiness? The quality of the images too leaves something to be desired. They are not sharp enough; they should have been considering the size of the negatives. The pictures acquired from Getty Images would have certainly been sharper than what has appeared in this book. The problem may have come up in the course of the digital transfers.

There is, in addition, a glaring error: A portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, which subtly captures the contradictions in his personality, is also attributed to Bourke-White who first came to India in 1946. Bose escaped from British India in 1943 to form the Indian National Army with Japanese help in occupied Singapore. This inclusion may be the result of inadequate fact checking.

Witness To Life And Freedom: Margaret Bourke-White In India And Pakistan, Pramod Kapoor; Lustre Press/ Roli Books; Rs. 595.

More In: Books