His last journey

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Acclaimed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was, incidentally, on assignment to shoot Gandhi at the time, became the last person to have taken photographs of the Mahatma just an hour before his death.

On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse did the unthinkable. Armed with a Beretta automatic pistol, he shot Mahatma Gandhi as he walked across the gardens of Birla House to a prayer meeting. Announcing the shocking news on radio, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “The father of the nation is no more. Now that the light has gone out of our lives I do not quite know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader is no more.”

Acclaimed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was, incidentally, on assignment to shoot Gandhi at the time, became the last person to have taken photographs of the Mahatma just an hour before his death. He documented his final journey and a nation in mourning in a photo-essay titled “India and the Death of Mahatma Gandhi”. Among them are photographs of Gandhi’s body at Birla House; his cremation on the banks of the Yamuna, a grief-stricken Nehru staring in the distance and some long shots of the assembled crowds.

Henri Cartier-Bresson's photographs on a panel at Gandhi Smriti.

These photographs were on display at Gandhi Smriti, the erstwhile Birla House, on Tees January Marg. Acquired from the Birlas in the late 1960s by the central government, the Gandhi Smriti now functions as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture.

The photographs were in news recently when Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of the Mahatma, slammed the government over their “removal”. Gandhi Smriti director, Dipankar Shri Gyan, however, says the gallery is merely undergoing a process of digitisation and modernisation. “The photographs have not been removed from the wall at all; only, instead of physical copies, the soft copies have been installed on LED screens. In place of 12 photographic panels, the walls have been fitted with 13 screens, where these photos play on loop,” he says.

A lot more content has also been added to the gallery, which was earlier dedicated to Gandhi's last days, and, by Gyan’s own admission, was the most visited part of the Gandhi Smriti. Now, as one enters the gallery, a screen playing Gandhi’s favourite bhajan, Vaishnav jan to, sung by international artistes, welcomes visitors. Three other screens are dedicated to Gandhi’s marches, among them the Transvaal March of 1913 and Dandi March of 1930. One screen shows the tributes paid to Gandhi by world leaders through video and audio messages. The panel here earlier had tribute messages from the time of his death.

The Cartier-Bresson photos are relegated to the last screen in the corridor, playing the scanned copies of the panels in loop (each for 30 seconds). The iconic Nehru photograph from the time of Gandhi’s death, to which a panel was dedicated earlier, is also part of it, with a snatch of his long radio speech playing in the background.