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This is a condensation of a sketch, by Kalpana and Amrit Wilson, of Sunil Janah's working life, in the context of background historical events.


Sunil Janah - A Biographical Sketch

Sunil Janah is one of India's foremost photographers. He captured history in the making, documenting the people's struggles against colonialism and the emergence of independent India after 1947.

Born in Assam in 1918, Sunil Janah was educated at St. Xavier's and Presidency colleges in Calcutta. Photography was a hobby, until he came to prominence for the pictures of the Bengal Famine he had taken as a journalist in 1943. A man-made disaster, caused by the diversion of India's food grains to the British army on the Eastern Front during the Second World war, the famine was further escalated by the insatiable greed of black-marketers and hoarders. It served to intensify, further, the anger which drove the movement for independence. Sunil Janah's photographs convey the full horror of the famine, without compromising the dignity and individuality of those who suffered.

He went on to document most aspects of the Independence movement and Partition, capturing, on the one hand, historic moments in the lives of leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, and, on the other, portraying the reality of the mass movements of the period, in sensitive and moving studies of individual participants as well as panoramic and often breathtaking images of a people on the march.

Independence coincided with the partition of the country, which triggered the violence and slaughter of the communal riots and mass migrations of terrified refugees across the newly defined borders of India and West and East Pakistan. Sunil Janah witnessed and photographed these traumatic events. It was during this time that he met and worked with Margaret Bourke White, who came to India on an assignment for Life magazine.

After this tumultuous period, which was to shape the destiny of the two countries, from then on, along totally different paths, he turned to his first love - photographing the common, mainly rural, people of his vast country and the richness and resilient vitality of their lives in the face of appalling poverty and hardships. The country itself, with its varied landscapes strewn with relics from the rich past - temples, palaces, forts, and mausoleums, some intact in their monumental grandeur and others, now, ruins of haunting beauty - enticed him to travel and to take his photographs.

Among the photographs of archaeological remains, the more impressive are of the fabulous temple sculptures of Hindu deities and dance poses immortalised in stone. His later photographs, of some of the great living exponents of classical Indian dances of his time, appear to reflect these earlier images.

He became interested in the tribal people of India, an interest sustained by his friendship with Verrier Elwin, who came to India with a missionary zeal to save souls, but became, first, a disciple of Gandhi and, eventually, an Indian citizen and renowned ethnologist working for, and among, the tribals of India. The photographs that Janah took of these people, living in remote hills and forests, are, probably, the most remarkable of this later phase.

In the 1950's, Sunil Janah was commissioned, on a number of occasions, to photograph the symbols of rapid industrialisation then taking place, highlighting the mood of optimism which characterised the period. In course of this, he produced some striking pictures of industrial workers.

Through these photographs of India and its people, Sunil Janah conveys the tenacious diversity of cultures, religions and ethnic groups across the regions. This creates a picture of India which, today, challenges the aggressively homogenized images generated by contemporary right-wing and religious chauvinism as well as the globalised media. The photographs also subvert dominant ideas about Indian women, in their remarkable empathy with their, mainly, female subjects, who are never passive but, instead, challenge the assumptions of the viewer.

Condensed from text by Kalpana and Amrit Wilson (of the South Asian Solidarity Group, London), with excerpts from the photographer's writings.


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