In this age of television most of us have forgotten the power and charm of photographs. Yet far more than the moving image, the black and white still frame can capture a mood or a memory which, thereafter, becomes indelible.
I've spent the last week thumbing through Pramod Kapoor's collection of Margaret Bourke-White's photographs of India and Pakistan in 1947. The best of them reveal details — dare I call them secrets? — that I find fascinating. They even portray our great leaders in an entirely new light. Take her picture of Nehru. The first thing that strikes you is he's posing. There's a lit cigarette, at the end of a long holder, which is firmly caught in his lips as he stares at the lens. You can't resist the feeling the man was a bit of a dandy. Now, don't get me wrong. I rather like dandies. I often think of myself as one. But that's not a word I'd have used for Nehru. At least, not till now.
The second thing that struck my attention was that Nehru was only good looking with his Gandhi cap firmly on his head. Without it his bald pate made him look like an egg!
Across the page is a picture of Maulana Azad that reminds me more of Lawrence Olivier than a Muslim divine or an Indian freedom fighter. The look on his face suggests Hamletian indecision. But the eyes are riveting. You can tell they see trouble ahead. The Maulana is also smoking, except he's opted for a cigar. It resembles the sort you would normally associate with Jinnah. The text between the two photographs establishes a telling, if perplexing, link: “Maulana Azad, the great Urdu scholar, once said: ‘When Jawaharlal talks in his sleep he speaks in English.'”
Now photos usually illustrate what words cannot really convey. The actual image is always more powerful than any description of it. But what I did not realise is that photos can also illuminate the delightful images of poetry. Remember Edward Lear's playful rhymes about The Akond of Swat?
Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of Swat?
Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or a chair, Or squat, The Akond of Swat.
Well, blow me down but Bourke-White has the perfect photograph to illustrate this rhyme. Her picture of Miangul Abdul Wadud, surrounded by his bodyguards, portrays a man with the head of Henry VIII, wearing a hunter's uniform with boots and stockings, a shepherd's staff in his hand and thick glasses resting on his nose. In the background are the dry, brown mountains that envelope Swat valley.
In fact the Akhunds of Swat were wise, forward-looking men. The present Akhund, now called Wali, studied at the Doon School. He married Ayub Khan's daughter, Nasim, a great beauty. Roughly ten years ago their daughter, Fakhri, and her husband, Akbar, served in Delhi as Pakistan's Deputy High Commissioner.
If she were alive today I wonder what Margaret Bourke-White would make of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and L.K. Advani? Who would be the dandy and who the tragic actor?
The views expressed by the author are personal.