A must-see exhibition of iconic photographers Shambhu Saha, Henri Cartier Bresson and Sunil Janah in the Capital captures the lives of our diverse people, the grandeur of our monumental structures and the richness of our sculpture and dance

This week we are interrupting our on-going series on the abysmal condition of some of our water bodies to take a peek at a remarkable exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Titled (Re) Discovering India -Then and Now, it is curated by architect and designer Shakeel Hossain who is also a consultant with the Agha Khan Trust for Culture. The exhibition, based upon IGNCA’s own photographic archives, draws from the breathtaking and at times greatly disturbing black and white photographs taken by three iconic photographers, Shambhu Saha (1905-1988). Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) and Sunil Janah (1918-2012).

The first two were born in the first decade of the 20 Century and the third, Sunil Janah, was born towards the close of the second decade of the 20 Century. Creatively, the most productive period of their lives coincided with the time when an entire people were giving shape to their dream of freedom from colonial yoke.

These were happy times and sad times. They were happy and exciting times because after 200 years of thraldom and servitude we were preparing to breathe the air of freedom. Sad and heart breaking times because we were also struck with man-made calamities -- famines, rioting, Partition and the exodus of millions across newly drawn borders and of arson, loot and senseless killings. All this was bringing out into the open the best and the worst human beings are capable of.

These were also the times of great experiments. In education as in Shanti Niketan under the benign presence of Tagore, and in the arts and sciences and in efforts to explore, understand and redefine our cultural heritage and understand ourselves.

Amidst this backdrop were the three photographers. Henri Cartier Bresson, a Frenchman whose photographs of the assassination of the Mahatma captured an entire nation in mourning and whose documentation of a nuclear plant being erected with bare hands captured the spirit of self-reliance that we have now sacrificed at the altar of neo liberalism. There was Shambhu Saha whose documentation of the extraordinary quotidian life at Shanti Niketan and whose portraits of Robi Thakur were to define an entire era and to present to India and to the world a new approach to education. And then there was Sunil Janah who captured and made real for every Indian, not only the tragedy of man-made famines and how want and hunger demean human existence, but also aspects of India that most Indians were unaware of -- the sorrows and joys of the lives of our diverse people, marginalised, branded and ignored, the grandeur of the monumental structures that we built and the richness of our sculpture and our dances. In short, the unending struggle of the common people for a decent life.

There is all this and more in the exhibition. Go with time on your hands as you need more than a couple of hours to appreciate it properly. As you pause before each photograph and let the subtle beauty of blacks, whites and shades of grey sink in, pay attention to the accompanying text. It has been written with care and needs as much attention and appreciation as the riveting snapshots.

Exhibitions like this one are not put together every day, so take as many people as you can. One hopes IGNCA will extend it beyond the last day, October 31, or put it up again and this time give it wider publicity.