French photographer and artist Constant-Georges Gasté captured India with warmth and immediacy, more than a century ago, explains Aude de Tocqueville
Constant-Georges Gasté (1869–1910) spent five of the most productive years of his life in India. Somewhat of a misfit and prone to depression, he lived in Algeria and Egypt for many years before moving to India in 1905. While most European “orientalist” painters merely produced pastiches of life in Africa, the Middle East and the rest of Asia in their studios back home, Gasté actually lived and worked in the erstwhile colonies.
He travelled the length of India, working tirelessly as a reporter, closely observing the landscape and the people. Uneasy in colonial society, this eternal nomad lived in “native” areas, painting and photographing daily life in north India—particularly Agra, Gwalior and Varanasi—where he spent his first sojourn.
In 1908, after a trip back to Europe—to Venice and Constantinople—Gasté returned to India to “unravel the mysteries” of the country. But this time it was to the south, to Madurai. Here, his palette changed. Enlivened by warm shades and an enamelled glow, his canvases now evoked the paintings of Gustave Moreau. He managed to gain access for several months to the inner sanctum of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, where foreigners were hitherto not allowed.
Gasté was clearly an accomplished painter who sought to capture emotions and authenticity. It is, however, his photographs which appear to be more personal and surprisingly modern. Nothing is sublimated; rather, everything seems spontaneous and far away from the made-up orientalist pictures of this time. These photographs record daily life in India in the early 20th century.
He died in his workshop in Madurai in 1910, surrounded by unfinished canvases. He is buried in a small Protestant graveyard there.
The exhibition Gasté in India (1905–1910) is curated by Aude de Tocqueville. It opened at the Alliance Française in New Delhi in December, and is travelling to eight other Indian cities until March.
Aude de Tocqueville has written several books on architecture, art and history, including The History of Adultery, There Once was a Family, The History of Paris, and Atlas of Lost Cities. Since 2010 she has delved into the archives of the painter-photographer Georges Gasté and written a biography on him titled Gasté, Tracking the Sun in the Darkness.