In the vast annals of Indian history, the names of many men and women and their contributions might have vanished without a trace till by sheer serendipity they suddenly re-surfaced. One of them is French Orientalist painter and photographer Constant-Georges Gasté. An ongoing exhibition at the NGMA showcasing Gasté’s photographs of India throw light among other things on his unique personality and style and his love for India.
During his brief lifetime, Paris-born painter–photographer Constant-Georges Gasté (1869–1910) travelled a lot and this in a large way influenced his life and works. He spent some memorable years of his life in India and it was in India that he died. He visited the country in 1905 after stays in Algeria and Egypt. Described my many as wild-natured and publicity shy, Gasté stayed at Agra. His experiences in India led him to produce a series of paintings and photographs of North India especially the area around the Taj Mahal. All of his works during this period had an air of melancholy and stood out from those of his peers because of his unique style. His closeness to the local population in a large way showed up in his work. His pictures look amazingly close to reality.
The first half of the exhibition showcases his works in North India. Particularly eye-catching are a shot of the Taj Mahal in a totally different perspective. Called ‘Sita’s Terrace’, the focus of the picture is on the key character, a young girl Sita dressed in ethnic wear, standing on a terrace while the majestic Taj is blurred in the background. Being a jewellery enthusiast, I was particularly impressed with Sita’s jewellery. Her hairstyle is unique and her clothes I guess were very colourful. How I wish the picture was in colour. As Chief Guest Chiranjeev Singh pointed out during the launch of the exhibition, a notable feature of Gasté’s pictures is the play of light. The Great Mosque of Agra and the thoroughfares around it provided photo opportunities galore for Gasté. He also had a penchant to shoot at crowded areas like a busy bazaar. In one of his pictures titled ‘Sacred Tree’, Gasté has paid tribute to the venerable Pipal tree. There are quite a few pictures of Varanasi with emphasis on the Ghats. Surprisingly, though the pictures are of 1906 there is a strong contemporary flavour in them. Going by some of the photographs not much seems to have changed in places featured in them. His picture of a veiled woman near a cenotaph in front of the Qutab Minar depicts an element of mystique and so also a photograph of a sadhu. A picture of a monk in front of the stupa at Sarnath speaks of the majesticity of the historic edifice. Enchanting also are pictures of the Nizamuddin Dargah, the Gwalior Fort, a street dancer and the shores of the Yamuna. In one of the photographs, Gasté has very beautifully captured the artwork on the wall of a village dwelling.
When Gasté returned to Europe in 1906, he showcased his Indian works at Orientalist Salons. They fetched him rave reviews. After a visit to Constantinople and Venice in 1908, Gasté decided to return to India to “unravel mysteries” of the country. This time he chose to live in South India and settled in Madurai. His works during his stay in Madurai were a stark contrast to the melancholic paintings and photographs which he produced during his stay in the North. Again while most of his works in North India explored the Muslim side, in contrast the ones at Madurai explored the Hindu side. These were more vibrant and characterized by “warm shades and enameled glow”. Gasté set up a workshop in Madurai and there is a photograph featuring the workshop. A picture of Vaishavite Brahmins looks so alike Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Brahmacharis’. Chiranjeev Singh opined that Amrita Sher-Gil’s painting would have probably been inspired by Gasté’s photograph. Interestingly, Gasté and Amrita share the same alma mater. They both studied at Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris. Gasté has done a painting on the same subject and it is titled ‘Bain des Brahmines’ (The Brahmins Bath). He considers the painting as his most accomplished work. No photographer in Madurai can miss out on the famous Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple. Gasté’s picture of a thoroughfare outside the temple is among the collection. Some of the photos carry a festive flavour; not surprising since Madurai is a temple town and there are festivals throughout the year.
During his times, Gasté certainly made a mark in India. Sadly he died young, at 41. He passed away in Madurai on 12 September 1910. The Frenchman is believed to have died in the solitude of his workshop. Like in his later days, Gasté had lived a lonely life as a child. He lost his father at a very young age and was raised by his mother.
Definitely, Gasté’s footsteps in India are indelible.
The exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art till 27 March 2015. See if you can make it.