In the autumn of 1949, a photo exhibition of medieval Indian temple sculptures was the talk of the town among New York’s intellectual elite. Word had spread that the images, taken by a Swiss photographer who lived in India, had been well received in Paris a year earlier. Their interest was piqued. New Yorkers knew little about India’s architectural heritage and, to them, the photographs of the temples of Khajuraho, Mahoba, Bhubaneshwar and Konark by Raymond Burnier were a window on another world.

In the museum’s October 1949 bulletin, Alan Priest, who was the curator of Far Eastern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, likened a visit to the exhibition to visiting the Indian temples. “Not that this is a life-sized model or a Colonial Exposition, wall-by-wall presentation,” Priest wrote. “On the contrary it is a series of large photographs mostly of single figures or details, but by seeing a large number of them together, the observer experiences much the same thing that he does when visiting an actual temple. It is a very exciting and beautiful exhibition indeed.” Priest called the photos a “powerful visual manifestation of a very old and powerful religion”.

The exhibition in New York had the full patronage of the Indian government, which wanted to popularise Indian art in the United States. By this time, Burnier had become an Honorary Officer on Special Duty of the Archaeological Department of the government of India.

Move to India

Born into a wealthy family in 1912, Burnier took an active interest in photography right from his childhood that was mostly spent in Algeria. Having immense wealth and resources at his disposal, he travelled extensively in his 20s, visiting places like Japan, China and Indonesia. His destiny, however, was linked with India. In 1931, he met French intellectual and Indologist Alain Danielou in the French Riviera. The two of them became romantic partners and decided to go on an adventure to India.

The country left such a mark on both men that they returned several times and eventually ended up living there for more than two decades. British Indian records indicate they once drove into India through the Balochistan border and went by road to Afghanistan from India on the invite of the Afghan King. On another occasion, they entered the country at Dhanushkodi from Ceylon on a ferry.

To get permission to reside in India, Burnier told the British Passport Control Office that he was studying Indian architecture and wanted to click photographs of monuments and old buildings. He and Danielou settled down in Varanasi in December 1938, where they rented Rewa Kothi, a house that faced Assi Ghat, from the Maharaja of Rewa. The house was a haven for artists, writers and musicians. One of the earliest visitors was a young Ravi Shankar, who remained close friends with the duo for decades.

Burnier and Danielou travelled across India in a two-seater Ford with a trailer imported from the United States latched to it. The trailer also served as a darkroom for Burnier. During their travels across the length and breadth of India, more than 20,000 photographs were taken.

At Khajuraho, the two men were treated as objects of curiosity since they were among the first Westerners to visit the temples. Armed with rudimentary knowledge of Hindu art and sculptures, they visited several temples in many parts of India, but the temples of Khajuraho, Bhubaneshwar, Konark and Mahoba seemed to have left the greatest impression on their minds. Danielou later converted to Shaivite Hinduism.

Among the friends they made in the country was Rabindranath Tagore, with whom they spent a lot of time at Santiniketan. “During their wanderings, they had Santiniketan as their anchor,” French journalist Vanessa Dougnac wrote for Le Point. “There was an opportunity to observe Tagore with admiration, but also with freedom of mind and the perception of aesthetes.”

Under British surveillance

Although they lived in comfort in India, some members of the British colonial administration viewed them with a deep degree of distrust. In July 1941, the British Resident in Mysore issued an order that barred the duo from the “civil and military station of Bangalore”. They sought permission to enter the city after having had trouble in Dharwad a couple of months earlier.

A confidential report from the Central Investigation Department from May 1941 stated that they were stopped by the police when they entered Dharwad from Belgaum. “They wore shirts, shorts and chappals and tied their hair in Hindu fashion (shendi),” the report said, adding that they had survey maps of India’s coastline. When questioned, Burnier and Danielou showed the police a letter from the Archaeological Department of the University of Calcutta with a list of temples all over India. The duo said they wanted to visit temples in Udupi and the South Canara district, but the authorities were not convinced about their motives. “It is undesirable that two such suspicious persons should be allowed to carry out what may well be a survey of India’s coastline at the present time,” the CID note said.

The British had been keeping an eye on Burnier and Danielou for a number of years. In a note dated July 14, 1941, an English official named MK Johnston wrote, “Both the persons are now in Benares and the UP government have recently ordered their interrogation with a view to find out full details about their activities and if necessary, to impose restrictions on their movements.”

The CID had received intelligence that Burnier had Nazi sympathies but were unable to prove this.

The investigations ended abruptly in October 1941 since the colonial authorities could not find evidence to support the allegations that Burnier and Danielou were indulging in espionage. A CID report from that month, signed by an official whose name is not clear, said, “These two individuals are certainly unusual, and though it does not follow that persons who behave in an abnormal way are necessarily dangerous, their manner of life and movements do give ground for a certain amount of suspicion. I agree, however, that there is not sufficient ground for taking further action until we receive a recommendation to that effect.”

The May 1941 report revealed that the British were keeping tabs on the duo even in Europe. “Enquiries made about them abroad at the end of 1936 showed them to be two monied travellers of dilettante artistic tastes and free of suspicion,” the report stated.

Honoured residents

After the British left the country in 1947, the government of newly-independent India reached out to Burnier and Danielou and offered them a hand of friendship. Danielou, by that time, had become a scholar of Indian classical music and a proficient veena player. He had also learned Hindi and Sanskrit and translated many classical texts to French. Burnier, meanwhile, was entrusted by the government to take photos of the country’s temples and was appointed as the Honorary Officer on Special Duty of the Archaeological Department.

In early 1948, Burnier compiled a set of photographs of 10th-12th sculptures from Indian temples. Russian-born French antiquarian book collector, publisher and art collector Pierre Beres arranged for an exhibition of the photographs to be staged in Paris in June 1948. It was received well in the French capital, where Danielou’s works were also popular.


The exhibition was held in New York a year later. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s October 1949 bulletin, Priest wrote that it was not necessary to know Hindu books or verse thoroughly to enjoy what he called the “deities translated into an understandable human form.” He added, “So with these Hindu deities we may learn to see a thunderbolt and know that it is Shiva, a ram and flames and know that it is Agni, or recognize Yama dancing on a buffalo.” Priest said these pictures would evoke a greater interest in Hindu temples.

The exhibition featured photos of the head of Apsaras from Bhubaneshwar’s Rajarani and Mukhteshwar temples and Khajuraho’s Adinath and Kali temples. It also had images of Shardula the fantastical lion and Yama’s buffalo from the Rajarani temple, among other sculptures. The photos managed to generate a deep interest in the sculptures of Khajuraho, in particular, and led to several Western travel writers and journalists visiting them, in effect putting Khajuraho on the global tourist map.

Burnier and Danielou moved back to Europe in the early 1960s and continued to be cultural ambassadors for India. Although he was in a long-term romantic relationship with Danielou, Burnier was briefly married to Radha Sri Ram, who went on to become the president of the Theosophical Society of Adyar. She retained her married name after their divorce and is better known as Radha Burnier. The Swiss photographer passed away in 1968, while the French Indologist died at the age of 86 in 1994.

The Indian government periodically organises exhibitions of Burnier’s photographs both in India and abroad.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.