Publisher: Susmita Chanda, New Delhi ISBN: 978-3-934726-44-4
About The Mother: Selected Photos
More than 250 black-and-white photographs have been selected and arranged with a focus on one particular element: the powerful vibration that is radiated by the Mother's physical appearance. Most are original pictures presented without touching up or repairing any defects; they are arranged without chronology or theme or identifying remarks so that the reader is left solely to experience the depth and dramatic power of the photographs. At the back of the book the pictures are reproduced in smaller size with dates and some brief comments. The book is printed on art paper.
In Conversation with a Photographer-sadhak
Someone once asked the Mother: Why does meditation in front of different photos of you give different experiences? It is because each photo represents a different aspect, sometimes even a different personality of my being; and by concentrating on the photo, one enters into relation with that special aspect or different personality which the photo has captured and whose image it conveys. The photo is a real and concrete presence, but fragmentary and limited. [CWM, 16, 232]
She went on to explain what she meant by a fragmentary and limited presence: Because the photo catches only the image of a moment, an instant of a person's appearance and of what that appearance can reveal of a passing psychological condition and fragmentary soul-state. Even if the photograph is taken under the best possible conditions at an exceptional and particularly expressive moment, it cannot in any way reproduce the whole personality. [CWM, 16, 232]
The recent publication The Mother: Selected Photos offers its readers the opportunity to experience different aspects and personalities of the Mother's being through a collection of black-and-white photographs in a handsomely produced volume. They are arranged without chronology or theme or identifying remarks in an unusual presentation. We turned to one of the Ashram's long-time photographers for a closer examination and assessment of the artistic merits of the book. Robi Ganguli took up photography in 1948 and spent many years learning and practising this art, often with the Mother's direct guidance. Recently he had the opportunity to go through the book and shared some of his impressions with me for this newsletter.
When I arrived at his place for the interview, he was quietly turning the pages of the book that lay across his lap and admiring what he called "a collection of very beautiful photos of the Mother, which would unquestionably have a strong effect on any devotee". He admired, too, the excellent quality of the printing and binding and commented that the book was very reasonably priced. He showed me some pictures that were taken when he was present and a few others that he had probably taken himself. I asked him if he thought the unusual arrangement of the photographs in the book was successful. He paused thoughtfully and answered that there was evidently a plan behind the layout of the images, but that the plan was not apparent to him and the book did not convey to him a coherent vision or idea. But the images were not only beautiful, they were very powerful too.
He, however, did not appreciate what he termed as "technically sloppy" some pictures where dust spots and fungus damage had not been touched up. He does not think such defects add anything to the picture; on the contrary, they detract from the atmosphere of the photos. He told me that the Mother had asked him on several occasions to touch up such spots before making prints for distribution. In fact, this was a standing instruction to all the photographers who made prints for the Sri Aurobindo albums of pictures taken by Cartier-Bresson.
Showing me a few pages by way of example, he said that he would have preferred more space around the photos in these pages. He found it difficult to concentrate on some of them, particularly when facing pages contained full-page photos, each one powerful and needing total concentration. The "full" facing pages were occasionally successful when the photos were in a series, such as a few of the Japanese scenes. The randomly arranged full-page photos, facing each other, didn't always work well for him.
He was clearly moved by these photos of the Mother and also spoke with a deep appreciation for the craft and the art of photography. This prompted me to remind him of an interview we had done for a previous newsletter, during which he shared how he first took up photography. In 1948 his friend and tennis partner Jayant Patel encouraged him to come and learn photography from his brother Chimanbhai. Robi-da was interested, and referred the matter to the Mother. In his own words he recounts that interaction: "Mother, may I learn photography?" She asked me, "Are you serious?" I said, "I can try to be serious." She gave me permission and told me, "If you are serious, I'll take you there." [She just pointed her finger up.]
She then told him to bring the pictures he had started taking. Every week or fifteen days he took whatever photographs he had to her, and she would explain what was right and what was not right about the photos. She talked to him about form and line and the appropriate choice of subject, giving him very precise guidance and criticism. He remembered one competition where he won second prize and somebody else had won first prize. The Mother asked him if he knew why he had got second prize and not first. When he asked her to explain the reason she said that his picture was a classical picture; everything was in balance. She told him that the days of such pictures were over. The first prize picture had captured a person in movement on one side of the photograph, opposed by an object on the other side. She said that art must reflect the times we live in. "Today it is balance by tension. And that picture reflects that."
Every day, during the athletics season, several Ashram photographers used to take photographs of the events that were going on in the Sportsground. The Mother was always present during these events. One morning she suddenly said to him: "Bring all the pictures you took in the Sportsground yesterday." When he asked her why, she replied: "Yesterday your artistic being was in the front. I want to see what kind of pictures you have got." There were many other instances when she would look at photographs and comment on their merit or their weakness. For about thirty years Robi-da and others organised the Pondicherry International Salon of Photography, an annual international exhibition, opening at the Exhibition Hall on the 15th of August every year. In the early days the Mother would see every single picture entered for the exhibition. He would open the packet in front of her and she would go through the pictures, commenting why one picture was good and another was not. He recalls that once when some nude studies were submitted, he asked the Mother what should be the salon's policy. She said that if it was really a good nude study, it became a work of art. Such pictures could be exhibited. But if it was not a good picture, it often ended up being simply the picture of a naked woman! Such pictures naturally had to be rejected.
Robi-da ended by saying that The Mother: Selected Photos is a very fine collection because it brings together so many beautiful photos of the Mother in one volume. There are early photos from her life in Paris, haunting images from Japan, scenes showing her at work, pictures taken in her room, meeting people, playing tennis, at the Sportsground watching the events, in the Playground giving classes, and many, many portraits and Darshan photos. It is an opportunity for devotees to see many less familiar photographs along with the better-known ones and to experience the "real and concrete presence" of the many aspects of the Mother's personality.
In a talk about concentrating on her photos, the Mother said: the fact of concentrating on the photograph puts one in contact with the Force, and that is what is necessary in the case of everyone who responds automatically.
It is only when the person who concentrates puts a special will, with a special relation, into his concentration that it has an effect. Otherwise the relation is more general, and it is always the expression of the need or the aspiration of the person who concentrates. If he is absolutely neutral, if he does not choose, does not aspire for any particular thing, if he comes like this, like a white page and absolutely neutral, then it is the forces and aspects he needs which will answer to the concentration. [CWM, 7, 271]
Robi Ganguli was interviewed by Karen Ecke, a member of the newsletter's editorial staff.