Lit By Fire

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An Italian actress met an Indian nationalist in Mexico nearly a century ago and her photographs have endured time and other trials, says Ayan Meer

Revolutionary road A variety of maize developed by Pandurang Khankhoje; (right) Portrait of a revolutionary
Revolutionary road A variety of maize developed by Pandurang Khankhoje; (right) Portrait of a revolutionary
Photos: Copyright By Savitri Sawhney & Maya Khankhoje

TINA MODOTTI, the Italian actress, travelled to Mexico in the 1920s to mourn the death of a lover, and found herself in the heart of political dissent, social unrest and repression. On the outskirts of Mexico City, the young woman with a strong Left leaning ideology met Marathi nationalist Pandurang Khankhoje, the founder of the Ghadar Party, who’d put on hold his overseas activism and become an agronomy professor. Modotti’s pictures are a product of their association, a dispatch from the frontlines of the exploitation of agricultural workers.

Mothers with their children, workers protesting, vegetable roots and austere Mexican buildings populate the dimlit hall at the Italian Institute of Culture, Delhi, set up by the curator of the exhibition, photographer Raghu Rai. The way the eye is drawn towards the relatively small black and white images is itself a mystery. Indeed, what could be so revolutionary in these portraits and still-lives? Perhaps their truth. There is an unsettling, even shocking feel to the reality of light, and Modotti only captures the essential elements of the moments she is witnessing, letting her subjects casually craft tableaus of their own lives. “There is a clear purity to her images,” says Rai. A baby’s mouth wrapped around his bottle or a woman’s fingers plucking guitar chords create powerful punctums that imprint themselves in the mind of onlookers.

However, the seamed, sculpted faces of rural Mexicans are not the only compelling images; space is given to vegetable roots — aligned as in a natural science museum — and to architectural structures shot from unlikely angles. Rai adamantly defends the coherence in the choice of images, as he explains that “humans, plants, and buildings are not different, are not separated. They all fill the frame as a testament to light, as a testimony to what was there.” And although he claims not to believe in “nostalgic nonsense”, Rai is very keen to emphasise the form, Tina Modotti’s use of the camera, and how she was a pioneer at the time. “These were the guys who experimented and made photography an art form,” he says. The exhibition could be “involuntary” art — as if Modotti set out to simply chronicle and report scenes now part of the Mexican imagination and history. It’s also easy to be convinced of the contrary, since Modotti’s work highlights a very elegant artistic sense, particularly played out through the paradoxical superimposition of life and death — between photographs and within single frames. A proud woman grips a revolutionary flag, yet we sense her disappearing, consumed by history. Photographs of aligned vegetables emphasise their uprooting, their sacrifice, in a traditional form of still-life — painted with her 35 mm camera.

Modotti’s work highlights an elegance, played out through the paradoxical superimposition of life and death

What was Khankhoje’s contribution? The subjects were a subset of his studies. “He brought her to the true reality of the land, of these struggling populations,” says Rai, “he was the one who led her to the images that she was able to capture.” The name of the exhibition ‘Fire Does Not Die’ is from the final words of a poem Pablo Neruda wrote after Tina Modotti’s death. “Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,” stresses the third verse. It is a sense of purity, that ordeal by fire, which gives these photographs their historical and artistic value — the purity of their struggle, the purity of this photographic light.

letters@tehelka.com

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