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BOOK REVIEW: Witness to Life and Freedom: Margaret Bourke-White in India and Pakistan

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Pramod Kapoor

Published in Daily Times / 12 March 2011

Margaret Bourke-White came to India to “bear witness to the fall of the British Empire”. Partition was still a year away and her lens, set aglow from its dying embers was trained towards the brewing conflagration that was to set the region ablaze. Margaret, who has been called the “finest woman photographer of her time”, was commissioned by LIFE magazine to cover the “exchange of population”.

Pramod Kapoor, founder/publisher Roli Books, came across a selection of historically significant photographs taken by Margaret in Pakistan and India and decided to weave them into a fresh narrative. Witness to Life and Freedom reopens an old chapter adding facets of the freedom struggle seen from a unique vantage point. These, together with previously unpublished images taken over two years (1946-1948), chronicling the death and destruction left in the wake of partition amplify distant shockwaves from a traumatic past that was shunted aside to make room for (what was to be) a better future.

Margaret’s biographer Vicki Goldberg notes that these images are her most sustained body of work “offering a kind of stately, classical view of misery, of humanity at its most wretched, yet somehow noble, somehow beautiful”. Rare glimpses into the past, fleeting though they are, bring with them an acute sense of loss.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) described in The Digital Digest as a “trailblazer in twentieth century photojournalism” has impressive credentials and a series of firsts before her name — she was among the first wave of photojournalists taken on board LIFE magazine and her work was featured on LIFE’s first cover. She is also credited to be the first female photographer to cover war (during WWII), and was on the scene of a freshly liberated concentration camp.

The book charts the course of Margaret’s extraordinary career using snippets from her own books and her biographer’s words to showcase the pioneering spirit that calmly walked besides migrating convoys even as death was reaping the souls of people somewhere around the bend. This section is not for the faint-hearted.

Also included are some iconic images of the men who led the movement and Ms Goldberg projects specific characteristics on M A Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, and Gandhi, the Indian idol. About one she will declare, “Margaret composes an icon for a secular saint, humble, meditative, graced by light and accompanied by his symbolic spinning wheel much as western saints are accompanied by their emblems.” This would be Gandhi. The other she dismisses as a leader “whose features were as sharp as the creases in his western business suit” and attempts to cast him in as unflattering a light as possible. She casually throws in some provocative lines (“we shall have India divided or we shall have India destroyed”) and concludes, “Jinnah fulfilled the first part of his vow and came close to fulfilling the second”.

Margaret’s own words mirror the bias and seem to imply that the killing fields of Calcutta as a result of Direct Action Day 1946 (when Muslim League’s peaceful protests turned deadly) were part of a premeditated plan when she notes how Jinnah’s press statement “was in the form of a monologue delivered in an icy voice — a forecast of the fiery events to come”. Add to that the sight of him lashing out in “his flat chilled monotone” and the sketch is ready. But it is a poor likeness.

Suddenly, a man of peace known for taking up a principled stance becomes a disturbing footnote in the most important production of the 20th century, while Gandhi gets star billing. Were these words taken out of context or invented? Asif Noorani, who reviewed this book for another newspaper (December 5, 2010 edition), calls out Ms Goldberg for misquoting Mr Jinnah. But, in the end, the camera’s unerring eye turns out to be the most reliable witness. The images convey the triumph and tragedy and while death is the reigning theme, the indomitable human spirit provides the central storyline.

Roli Books; Pp 142; Rs 995
Available in Liberty Books

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