Of Life, a Song, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment

by | Feb 14, 2016 | Photography Tips, Rajasthan, Travel Photography, Travel Stories

She choked on the sandwich she was biting into, I really should have warned her to put it down when she asked if she could look at the photos I’d made. My bad I thought, nonchalantly picking the soggy pieces from my shirt where they’d landed.

She apologized profusely. Only to promptly pick up my camera again.  I could have sworn the demeanor of the kings – long deceased – portrayed in the large paintings that adorn the walls of the Café Mehran became a tad bit sterner. Being around royalty does demand a certain decorum; coughing up a sandwich isn’t part of it. Nor are loud exclamations, And her exclamations were loud.

“It’s not fair, not one bit!” she went, for maybe the tenth time. Loud, again. The maître d’ looked our way, a slight frown creasing his forehead. I knew then that I’d have to do something before we got the boot and a royal one at that – it just wouldn’t have been the right note to end what had so far been an amazing photography tour of Rajasthan.

I settled back into my chair, raising the cup of tea to my lips. “What’s not fair, Aapti?” She looked up from my camera – the one she’d been reviewing my shots on. If looks could have killed, I’d have died several times over. I hurriedly wiped the lop-sided grin off my face, not being particularly eager to join the paintings on the wall.

“The fact that you manage to nail The Decisive Moment almost every time!” she muttered. “Let’s face it, you and I saw the same thing — those beautiful colors, that brilliant pattern, and the gorgeous light. And then you waited – as did I – for what we felt would be Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment. I took a shot and you took a shot, and damn you – you with your little point-and-shoot managed to nail it, while I with my DSLR didn’t! And you’ve been doing so time and again since the last ten days while I always miss it!”

“It has nothing to do with the camera,” I replied. “Not in my case, and not in yours either, given just how at ease you are with its controls.”

“I know that,” she snapped. That’s why I decided I had to attend your Art of Seeing Photography Workshop on my visit to India a year back, frustrated as I was with my inability to make meaningful photographs despite having mastered the technical side of it.” “And has it made a difference?”, I asked. “The workshop – has your photography changed after that? And if so, in what ways?” “You know the answer to that!”, she exclaimed. “Of course, it has. My photography has undergone a sea-change – and for the better – since you taught me how to truly see. I’m so much more aware of the beauty of everything around me, just how photographable everything is. I’m seeing things I’d never ever have noticed before. And from what people who view my portfolio have to say, my ability to make a meaningful composition seems to have gone through the roof. But that last bit – the ability to nail Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment… I still haven’t got that!”

“Well, I did say during the workshop that that’s the last thing one is likely to master, and that’s why Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment is the last thing I talk about in the workshop. Besides, it does need everything else that I teach to fall in place before one gets there.” “I know,” she said. “And I do think that you’d agree that what goes before has fallen in place as far as I’m concerned. But The Moment… why can’t I nail it? I mean just look at your shots! Why? Why?”

Henri Cartier-Bresson's Decisive Moment

I knew then that I’d have to answer her. Or risk ending up having her so disheartened that she’d hang her boots – or rather camera – up. The question was whether she was ready for what I had to say. I sighed, there was only one way to find out.

“If the truth be told, it’s quite philosophical. Sure you want to hear it?” I ventured.

“I’m all ears,” she said, quickly setting my camera aside. Movement outside the cafe caught my eye. People scurried for cover as the unseasonal drizzle that had started a while ago picked up a little. I closed my eyes and collected my thoughts, wondering where I should begin.

“I wish Neha were here. I feel like singing. And how’s your hindi, by the way?”

“What???” she said. I’m sure she thought I’d lost it.

“Neha. Neha Chinmay Mandlekar .” I explained. “She’d attended the Art of Seeing Workshop a few months back, and she messaged me yesterday stating that back then she could understand only so much, but she feels now that her understanding has deepened. And she said that earlier she was too busy with technicalities, but now she knows exactly what I mean when I say what I do in the workshop, my philosophy — and she wants to understand it in depth. So yeah, I wish Neha were here, because what I’m going to say would be of interest to her too, I think. Anyway, how’s your command over the Hindi language?”

“It’s O.K.,” she replied. “As you’re aware, I am of Indian origin, but I’ve spent most of my life abroad ever since I was a child. So while I can understand – and speak – some hindi, I must state that I do have difficulty with it more often than not. But what’s that got to do with anything?”

I let out a long breath, it was time to get this show on the road, time to demolish some misconceptions. The problem was I didn’t know how the pieces would fall – would they fall all over her, leaving her bewildered and lost? Or would they blow the roof – the walls of her misconceptions – to smithereens, literally freeing her to what was? There was only one way to find out.

“How would you describe The Moment, Aapti?”

“Henri Cartier-Bresson described The Decisive Moment as that in which the photographer captures, in a fraction of a second the emotion of a subject and / or the beauty of form at the very instant it presents itself… an instant when all elements in the frame come together for maximum emotional impact” she shot back, not hesitating in the least. “And as you said during the workshop, all that sounds very nice but doesn’t explain squat about just what is meant by the elements coming together. And that is key, as you explained – the elements really come together when…”

The Description is Not the Thing!” I interjected, cutting her short mid-sentence. Maybe it was the emphasis with which it was delivered – and quite deliberately if I might say – whatever it was, she froze. I actually felt sorry then, but it had to be said.

“I I I I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I I don’t understand! What do you mean by ‘The Description is Not the Thing’?

“I’m afraid that calls for a song,” I said, stretching my arms and flashing a grin – the better to get her to relax again. “As I said, I feel like singing one.”

She smiled. “Go ahead. Should I be heading to the kitchen to see if they have some rotten tomatoes? Just in case you sound like you’re being slaughtered!”

“That won’t be called for,” I laughed. “O.K., it’s a hindi song, from this movie called Gol Maal. Not the one that came out a few years back, mind you. I’m talking about the original one, the one that was released in 1979. I don’t think you may have seen it. Or have you?”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t even born then!”

“I figured,” went I. “Things be as they may, it’s a song the hero sings to the heroine. And while it’s not a song about photography per se, it definitely is a song about Life. Or rather, how to get the most out of it. And maybe – just maybe – you may find it has something to do with your ‘Why’, and How to go about addressing the block you’re facing. As I said, it’s in hindi. Since you mentioned that you have some difficulty with that language, what I’ll do is translate as I go along. Is that fine with you?”

She nodded her consent, raising what was left of her sandwich to her mouth. I discretely moved a bit, just in case. And then, I began to sing…

The Decisive Moment Henri Cartier-Bresson

Hmm mm mm mm….. aha ha ha hey hey hey….
Hmm mm hmm mm….. Aanewala pal janewala hai….
Aanewala pal janewala hai.
Ho sake toh isame jindagee bita do Pal jo yeh janewala hai ho ho…...

(This Moment – The Moment – that is to come is but an instant and will flit away before you know it.
If you can – if you dare – make the most of it,
Live your Whole Life in That One Instant,
In that Fleeting Moment which will come only to be gone before you know it!)

She choked on the sandwich she was biting into, spewing out bits in the air. Again! I mentally patted myself on the back  for having the foresight to  reposition my chair out of the line of fire.

“My God!” she went, when she’d managed to catch her breath. “I can’t believe it! It’s so Henry Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment! It’s literally what the man said – ‘Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever!‘ ”

“The Description is NOT the Thing!” I said. Again. Far less sternly than before, but emphatically nevertheless.

I laughed as she gaped at me.  “I’ll come to that, but I hope you see the parallels in what that stanza from that song says to what I say in my workshop – the importance of being in the moment, being present in mind, body and soul. Just how important Mindfulness is to the process of Seeing overall.”

“Yes,” she nodded thoughtfully. “I think I do now. This is so amazing, the intertwined nature of every thing! As you put it, to truly understand one thing is to begin to understand the common thread that runs through everything! Wow!

“There’s more,”  I grinned. “That was just the first stanza from the song. Want to see just how deep the rabbit hole goes? Wanna follow the thread home?

“Yes!” she nodded enthusiastically.

Reaching forward, I gently slid the plate of sandwiches out of her reach. “Just in case!” I said. She laughed.

Ek bar yu milee masum see kalee…
Ek bar yu milee masum see kalee.
Ho khilte huye kahan khushbash mai chalee
Dekha toh yahee hai dhundha toh nahee hai
Pal jo yeh janewala hai ho ho……

(I once chanced upon a fresh bud,
a bud in the very act of blooming.
And while doing so it said “Behold, I am gone!”
When I saw it, it was there, but when I looked for it, it wasn’t
That Fleeting Moment which comes
only to be gone before you know it!)

“I want you to take your time thinking this stanza through Aapti” I said, leaning forward for emphasis. “Apart from describing so eloquently the oh-so-transitory nature of life’s moments, what else does this stanza speak about?

She thought long and hard. Then she thought longer and harder.

“I don’t know…”

“Maybe this will help,” I ventured. And then I sang a line from that stanza. Again. “When I saw it, it was there. But when I looked for it, it wasn’t…

Her eyes went wide as saucers. “In photography trying too hard to see can actually prevent you from seeing!

“Bingo!” I said. “Very often, the act of trying too hard to get something itself prevents you from getting it. As long as you’re going ‘I have to do this, I have to do this…’, you are separate, disjointed from whatever you are trying to get right. We don’t seek separation, we’re seeking fusion – a state where you, the object of perception, The Decisive Moment, and the process of making an image of The Decisive Moment are One! And you cannot achieve that Oneness if you’re subconsciously going ‘I [have to], I [have to], I [have to]…’. Your trying too hard is in no small measure preventing you from nailing The Moment. So my advice is this: Stop Looking for The Moment. Be in The Moment. Let The Moment come to you.

“You make it seem effortless!” she grumbled.

“It is effortless, trust me. You should be aware however that it does take a lot of effort to get to being effortless. The effort lies mainly in demolishing your notions of what you think, and instead learning to be and go with the flow. And when you ‘get it’, that’s a Moment by itself – The Moment it Clicks so as to put it – The Moment it Clicks in your head that you have to let go and just be there and observe. Cartier-Bresson himself said it – ‘all you have to is live and life will give you the pictures.’

“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” she said. “A hell of a lot. This is as revelatory as The Art of Seeing Photography Workshop. More actually!”

“Well, thank you for your kind words, mademoiselle. But it ain’t over till the fat lady sings! I’m yet to deliver the coup de grâce.

She frowned. “I presume it calls for singing what comes next in that song, and then putting it in context…”

“You presume wrong,” I laughed. Actually, for a change it involves me saying what I have to first, and then singing what’s left of the song.” I leaned forward, the better to get my point across.

“Tell me, do you remember the section from the Art of Seeing Workshop that deals with Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, specifically the parts where I display pictures from my own portfolio and walk participants through the events that led to me capturing those decisive moments?

“Yes,” she said. “And they’re extremely illustrative those stories. You highlight the entire thought process, what you saw, what you thought of, and the coming together – the confluence – of elements for maximum emotional impact.”

“Exactly,” went I. “I describe – post-event – the circumstances and thoughts that came to pass before The Decisive Moment. I repeat — I describe – post-event – what happened before The Decisive Moment…”

She buried her face in her hands. “Oh My God! The Description is Not The Thing. It’s never about The Thing itself! You describe the before and the after, but never The Moment!

“It never is and it cannot be!” I replied, exhilarated to see she’d got it. The Tao – The Way – that can be spoken of is not the True Tao or Way. Words have their limitations and at best can be used to describe or point to an experience, but cannot substitute the experience itself. One can speak of what The Moment is like and about as Henri Cartier-Bresson did, but not what The Moment is itself. One can speak as I do of what thought processes and events leading to The Moment, but not The Moment itself. The Description of a thing is not The Thing, and this is true of everything. The problem is that we get so caught up in words – that we fail to realize this – and enslave ourselves. We need the words – the descriptions – to help us find the way, but we have to realize that the words are not the way itself. And so, my advice to you is this — learn from the words, but don’t get enslaved by them, they’re just meant to help you forge your own way. Don’t chase Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, choose to find your own moment. Let it find you!

She nodded. “I understand you, I truly think I do.” She paused and then looked quizzically at me.

I smiled, knowing she was waiting for the rest of the song.

Ek Baar Waqt Se Lamha Gira Kahin
Wahaan Dastan Mili Lamha Kahin Nahin
Thoda Sa Hasaake Thoda Sa Rulaake
Pal Ye Bhi Jaanewala Hai Ho Ho

(Once, Time in passing dropped ‘A Moment’
You will find there –  of that moment and leading to it and its aftermath – narratives, stories and at times History itself,
But of that Moment itself, you will find little if any mention.
The Moment – so elusive is it,
Sometimes it makes you laugh, and sometimes cry,
This Moment – like every other – will come to pass.)

“You’re lucky I wasn’t chewing on that sandwich you know,” she said, a thoughtful look on her face.

I nodded, partially distracted by the stimulus of something tugging at the tendrils of my consciousness. I looked around to identify it; the shower that had pelted the Mehrangarh Fort a few minutes back had retreated, but I delighted in what it left in its wake. I closed my eyes, breathing in the smells deeply.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Savoring The Moment” I replied, my eyes still shut. “Savoring the smell of the earth that only the first – or unseasonal – rains can bring. Ho sake to isme zindagi bita do pal yeh jo jaane waala hai — if you can, savor the whole of life in this one moment!”

I heard the sound of a camera shutter and opened my eyes, only to see Aapti grin and show me the shot she’d just taken Of me, my eyes closed, savoring The Moment. I grinned.

She’d got it. She’d captured The Moment!


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