Rabindranath Tagore in Paris, 1921

Rabindranath Tagore in Paris, 1921
Photo Credit: Musée Albert Kahn, Boulogne-billancourt

A rare picture of the poet is on display at the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris

Sheetal Vyas
January 19 , 2015
01 Min Read

As dreams go, this was an ambitious one. A century ago, Albert Kahn, French banker and philanthropist, dreamt of gathering images from across the world. A new auto-chrome photographic process had recently been developed and he believed it could be used to record for posterity the peoples of the world, and even to promote cross-cultural peace and understanding. He called it Archives of the Planet.

The idealistic Kahn sent out a small army of photographers to more than 50 countries. 1909 was a crucial juncture for the world; several nations were on the brink of being changed unrecognisably by the war and globalisation. From numerous expeditions between 1909 and 1931, the photographers brought back rich documents from Vietnam and Brazil, India and China, Mongolia and Norway, Benin and the United States — before Kahn’s fortunes plummeted with a Wall Street crash. But they had already done well: the project collated 72,000 autochromes; a rich, incomparable document of the world as it was then. The collection is displayed at the Albert Kahn Museum in Paris.

An extract of this larger work, a collection of 50 photographs titled ‘Infinitely India’, was exhibited in Delhi and Mumbai. These are, of course, from the India chapter of the whole exercise — the work largely of two photographers: Stéphane Passet, who visited India in 1913-14 and gathered facets of everyday life, and Roger Dumas, who visited later in 1927-28 at the invitation of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and captured the royal side of India. Not cold ethnography or an attempt to produce high art, these are simply unassuming, observant and sympathetic images. Interestingly, India does not change, and neither do Indian faces.

But the real takeaways are rare pictures of Rabindranath Tagore and his family. This one — a full length portrait of a beatific Tagore surrounded by blooms — was not, in fact, shot in India. The location is Kahn’s famous rose garden in Paris, where Tagore and his host must have exchanged ideas. 

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