Saturday, September 25, 2010

A lifer's tryst with India

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White was on hand during the independence movement and Partition to capture an era of this country's history. Malavika Karlekar reviews a book on her life and work

If you've ever wondered about the striking, determined blonde with a camera played by Candice Bergen in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, Pramod Kapoor's book based on the Getty Images archives has the answers. In 1946, Margaret Bourke-White was appointed by Life to photograph the exchange of populations that followed Partition. By then she was known as a talented photographer with energy, initiative and, of course, the brashness and nerves of steel to elbow her way in. Photography critic's Vicki Goldberg's biography of Bourke-White introduces us to a woman who had the looks, charm and acumen to entertain at the same table "Hindu nationalists, Moslem separatists, Communists, British diplomats, and maharajahs". Photographer Sunil Janah became her assistant and well-known journalist Frank Moraes fell hopelessly in love with her.

When Bourke-White arrived in March 1946, she knew that photographing Mahatma Gandhi was a priority; she quickly learnt how to spin ” a requirement stipulated by his implacable secretary and took an image that has been "endlessly reproduced": the Mahatma poring over papers on his lap while the spinning wheel occupies the left foreground. The photographer was to go on to take many more shots of the man who affectionately called her "the torturer". Soon, Mohammed Ali Jinnah's Direct Action Day found her in the "fetid alleys of Calcutta (Kolkata) photographing the dead and dying in various stages of decomposition. A year later, at "the stroke of the midnight hour" as India was awakening to freedom, Bourke-White was to be photographing a land torn apart in horrific scenes that were "straight out of the Old Testament". In Halfway to Freedom, Bourke-White wrote, "While I traveled with the migration, my respect for Moses grew, for I glimpsed the colossal problem he had to solve. But these people had no Moses".

Full review here Sify

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