Caption: Empire

Posted by sepoy on March 26, 2006 · 1 min read

One of the imaginary courses I want to teach in the near-future would be a course on Empires and their native agents. Writing my paper for the recent conference kinda crystallized the desire and reading Dipeshda's introduction to the Bernard Cohn Omnibus was a real inspiration.

In the interest of such a course [and the further interest of not having much to say for the rest of the week], I am putting up a picture taken by the late Henri Cartier-Bresson in Delhi in 1948 of Nehru and the Mountbattens [Here is the link to the big version]. As they say that pictures speak a thousand words, say a few about this one, gentle readers.


Zak | March 27, 2006

I've said it before and I'll say it again..if Jinnah or Liaqat Ali Khan had messed about the way Nehru did ...Pakistan would have included all of North India!! :rollseyes

Sam | March 27, 2006

Well, after having seen this picture I must say that Nehru really did fancy the Mountbattens as much as the saying goes...but, I might be wrong!

Qalandar | March 27, 2006

...Let's not forget what Sarojini Naidu had to say (something to the effect of "Jawahar just isn't a one-woman man")-- if I remember correctly he was involved with her daughter too at one point... Interestingly, Azad's "India Wins Freedom" (the unexpurgated version) suggests that Edwina Mountbatten was crucial in getting Nehru to agree to partition (according to Azad, Patel-- "...would not be incorrect to call him the father of India's partition"-- had accepted the idea a while back but Nehru was opposed as late as 1947, but had come around within a month of Mountbatten's arrival in India). Though one does take this sort of thing with a pinch of salt, as desis are often all-too-ready to believe that a behind-the-scenes female/sexual liaison is to explain for much...

Qalandar | March 27, 2006

Bernard Cohn Omnibus? Yummy-- thanks yaar...

hamesha | March 27, 2006

this is telling... i must admit i had greater respect from nehru..and reading the responses i feel as if I have not read a whole corpus of literature of this yummy subject...

Jeff Mather | March 27, 2006

My knowledge of Partition-era inuendo is basically nonexistent, so I'll skip all that. Cartier-Bresson is most known for his "decisive moment" style of photography, which is basically to say that he waited until the world said what he wanted it to before "capturing" it objectively (he claimed) on film. That's what all art and editorial photographers do; we lie and mislead (at our worst) and frame discourse and experience (at our best). Nothing new there. Looking at this picture — which I vaguely remember seeing at the wee museum in Shimla's viceregal lodge — the first thing that struck me was that it was a comment on "Britishness" first and "Indianness" second. There's Lord Mountbatten looking proper and aloof and bored, and his wife enjoying a good joke with her distant squint and teeth hiding the fact that she enjoyed Nehru's joke somewhat more than she ought. But Nehru does seem the buffoon here, somewhat like an early Jerry Lewis. I wasn't aware that HCB had been to India, so I searched and found a small trove of images on the Net (with even more in his In India monograph). All in all they aren't much different from typical, high-end travel photographs of India and other "exotic" places. There's the laborers doing their thing ( and ) and the Native American-esque robed women holding their hands up à la Edward Curtis ( ) and the lazy native and the alluring local woman and the monumental architecture and the freakish (all at ) and the impoverished ( ) and the un-Christian religion ( ). All very much within the time that they were made, for better or worse: ( ). What I did find interesting was Madhumita Nandi's thesis ( ): "At an immediate level it is to explore and create short narratives (that interrelate to form a possible larger whole) that seek to appropriate the "Indian Experience " for the 'outsider'. "These narratives will suppose interested non-Indian audience that want to know more about India than snake charmers, elephants & the Taj Mahal. The stories will attempt to invite the audience to suspend perceived impressions momentary to become part of a space that is India. "The larger intention is driving this thesis exploration is a personal need to reconstruct memories and cultural identity."

Gp | March 28, 2006


Qalandar | March 28, 2006

Hamesha: not sure why your respect for Nehru should be lessened by this innuendo; presumably your respect was based on Nehru-the-politician/leader, not Nehru-the-dawg... personally I think he towers (warts and all) head and shoulders over the rest of the nationalist crowd, but from what I've read he was a philanderer to the core...don't see what bearing that has on his contribution to public life though...

Zak | March 29, 2006

Qalandar: To say that his philandering didn't have a major bearing on many of the events leading to and right after partition would be disingenius (sp?)

Qalandar | March 30, 2006

I am not making the point that his philandering did or did not have a major bearing on events; I AM questioning why one's "respect" for the man ought to take a beating in the absence of evidence that his philandering was anything other than mutually consensual. [Aside: One should also take with a pinch of salt the import of the Nehru-Edwina Mountbatten connection. As I've noted in an earlier comment, desis are particularly prone to positing a (malign?) female/sexual and hence "behind the scenes" explanation for various events (as noted above, Azad did so too in "India Wins Freedom." For instance, I've known a fair number of Pakistanis who attribute Mountbatten's "favoring" India over Pakistan vis-a-vis the partition awards to the Edwina-Nehru connection; on the other hand, the Hindu nationalist right claims India got a raw deal, and attributes that to the Nehru-Edwina Mountbatten connection as well! Taking a step back, it seems to me that Mountbatten had a marked personal preference for Nehru over Jinnah, and even if there had been no Edwina-Jawaharlal connection, it's hard to see that preference not manifesting itself.]

zp | March 30, 2006

funny. i didn't have much to say to the single image. but in the context of the other images j. mather found, nehru and the mountbattens is interesting because it is an image that includes the mountbattens. or rather, it is the only photo that includes any human figure representing the british colonial presence . . . all the other cartier-bresson photos mather found seem to be pretending/imagining that there are no visible human figures to directly represent the colonial power - but are there figures, events, details that are indirect visual representations of the colonial power? other kinds of indices? can anyone see them? are they figures, events, meanings that escape the visible or the frame? or are they the frame itself? or as an addendum to the argument of m.nandi, are the human figures of colonial power the intended audience? put images in a series, and i'm game.

Qalandar | March 30, 2006

Great comment Jeff...

Qalandar | March 30, 2006

Sepoy: what's with the dating on these comments? :-)

Sluggish Slug | March 30, 2006

"I did it all for nookie" - Nehru.

Morcy | April 04, 2006

I didn't know about the sex angle, since, well, I don't know much of anything about Partition, but it struck me that Nehru was not only bufoonish in this picture but looked like he was of, even, lower class--unable to maintain composure, say, while the Mountbattens manage to keep their spines straight. As such, by bending down, he also looks like a supplicant--the Indian help, ready to do the Englishman's bidding. In looking up at Edwinna, where some read lust, I read "serviam."

Qalandar | April 05, 2006

Morcy: certainly a fair reading of the pic-- though that says more about the photographer than about Nehru (i.e. which of us cannot be made to look buffoonish depending on when the photo is shot?)

Jeff Mather | April 07, 2006

Here's another Cartier-Bresson image of Nehru that has a totally different feel ( ). What do you think? A bit sinister?

Qalandar | April 09, 2006

Good find! Not sure if "sinister" is the word I'd use, but I kinda get what you mean...certainly seems part of the whole "prince/aristocrat surrounded by illiterate masses" mythology...