Bresson on the Death of Gandhi


From the estate of Frank Papp producer at NBC. Text verbatim with  typos:

This was the letter written by HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, one of the last people to see and talk to Mohandas Gandhi before his death.

January 3Ist, 1948

Box with films sent:

The first results of the end of Gandhi’s fast:  the peace campaign meetings, the Moslems of Old Delhi living in greater security, the refugee camp established in the old fort on the suggestion of Gandhi after his fast, the Moslems in the big Juma Mashid mosque, the national Moslem leaders, their organization, the pilgrimage of Moslems to the shrine of Mahrani (this was one of Gandhi’s seven points, he came there to be present at the reopening, it was his last time out).

The last prayer meeting of Gandhi and a series of interviews given on his last day before he died (studies of his hands, etc.,)

Eli and I had an interview with him the afternoon of his death at 3:30. I showed him some photographs, presenting him my book. He was especially interested in the picture of Paul Claudel passing by a hearse and asked me to explain, and I told him of the importance of the problem of death for Claudel. He gave his blessing, touching firmly Eli’s head. I was to accompany him on February 2nd the day after tomorrow, to his retreat at Ashram of Varda.

One hour and a half later we were with some friends at the Imperial. At 5:45 we took pictures of the empty couch at sunset, that he did not reach for the prayer meeting. I then took pictures through the windowframe of his friends and family in mourning in the same room where I took the breaking of his fast the week before.

In the night Nehru addressing the crowd; he climbed on top the gate of Birla House. Everybody was sobbing in the dark. It was deeply impressive, something universal was happening, people look struck by a great disaster. (This is a recapitulation of the work I sent you yesterday – my pictures represent Gandhi visiting the graves of the Moslem saints).

Here follows today’s work that will fly tomorrow morning through Bob Neville.

First film No. 56. Eli and I arrived at nine at Birla House Already hundreds of people were there but in anvery orderly queue, serpentlike on the Birla lawn; people were allowed to take a last look and salutation to Gandhi, resting in his bedroom surrounded by his friends and family. V. Patel and his sister were thoughtful in the gardens of Birla House. The crowd grew immensely in one hour the whole lawn was packed. So great was the gathering and the fervor of the crowd that no measure possibly could have held them back.

The couch in wood on which Gandhi used to sit in the sun is taken away from the desolate place by two Sikhs. The empty couch lies in the foreground of one of the pictures of Sardar. V. Patel. On this couch Gandhi used to give his interviews from ten to fifteen minutes, spinning at the same time. Gandhi in his bedroom, friends praying.

Film 57. The spot where Gandhi fell. People take some sand there. Already by 9:45 it makes a little hole. They kiss the sand, bringing it afterwards to their foreheads. The empty couch where he sat during prayer meetings….the loudspeaker, Birla House in the background. Gandhi was taken to a terrace of the house so that everyone could take a last “Darshan” (salutation). Gandhi is taken down in the main hall of the house and carried from there to the hearse in the yard crowded with people of all conditions. Mauntbatten is there. Nehru and the War Minister help putting flowers on the body. The hearse is pulled by the Indian Army. On departing shrieks of grief. II:30 am departure.

Film 58. The crowd so dense and eager to show their worship and love on the passage of funeral cortege. The soldiers, volunteers and horsemen had the greatest difficulty keeping the crowd from reaching the hearse. From here to the cremation place approximately five miles away the crowd was packed. I have never seen such a crowd in my life and will never see again. Nehru and Patel on the hearse, the family crying.

Film 59. The gateway of India, the imploring people. The friends on the side of the hearse, people throwing flowers salutations with folded hands, bell ringing, lamentations, shrieks, singing of hymns, Moslems gathered to pay last homage.

Film 60. The crowd waiting on the creamation grounds. It was as if Gandhiji was carried to an ocean of human beings. Never was there seen such a responsive crowd. For six miles, flowers were thrown. (An immense square had been kept open for the cremation, but when the body of Gandhi was there, the crowd broke through). The large plain where the pile of wood had been set at the end was slightly “ en contre bas” rom the road…. This was an apotheose of a great Indian myth, one to be added to the MAHABARATA (the great Indian sacred ethic). I was the only photographer to have a chance to follow the hearse.

People were gathered on the grounds and all wanted to be near Bapuji (respected father) NO POLICE IN THE WORLD AND NO ARMY COULD HAVE KEPT THEM AWAY.  They wanted to see him, to touch the hearse, some had the previlidge of touching his body. He was placed on the bucher. Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Nehru, Patel Krisha Hutheesing (Nehru’s sister) Patel’s sister, the diplomatic corps was sitting near the bucher. The plain was probably more than a square mile jammed with people. The friends of Gandhi help piling up the wood of sandal on his body and throw perfumed weeds and flowers over the wood which now almost covers him entirely. The young girls who devotedly always attented him break into tears, some, sobbing, cling to the body of Gandhi.

Film 62.   Dr. Metha, his doctor his secretaries, Dr. Susla Nay his doctoress.

63   series of telephoto shots done on the whole funeral.

The first flames, then the crowd starts moving and pushing in adeep wave of fervor and despair. This was not a disorderly crowd, it was a crowd possessed by love and devotion that they wanted to express.



All they wanted was to get closer to the fire as if they wanted to capture Gandhi’s spirit from the flames. In this highly emotional crowd some fell, creating still greater confusion. The police tried raising their long sticks, tried to restore some order, but it is obviously impossible for any police or army under such circumstances and especially with a crowd of a million or more, possessed by the deepest sorrow.

The end, the flames have grown very big. Nehru stands on the roof of a truck giving instructions to restore calm. The crowd is moving away from the plain, having fulfilled ther participation in the great myth.

The epilogue of the sacred drama was accomplished in 24 hours. Please keep the spirit of my captions….especially when crowd movements are shown.

I fell several times. Often I had to shoot just holding the camera in the air in the air in the direction of what struck me and thus keep walking on people pushing me. I am still deep under the impression of the great human drama of these last two days.

This was one of the greatest days in my life,…..