For an illustrated version of this, see the Virtual Exhibition, NY 98, which has both captioned panel shots and links back to this text.  That site is under construction, but section 5 (Land and People) is ready for viewing.
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The following is the context to the 1998 New York exhibition, "Photographing India, 1942-1978", in the form of section texts, either written by the photographer, Sunil Janah, or based on his writings. Please see also the Introduction to this Exhibition and the Curator's Note, both of which were authored by Ram Rahman, who curated the NY exhibition.


Exhibition, New York City, 1998

photographs by Sunil Janah, curated by Ram Rahman




These pictures were taken during the eventful years preceding and following India's freedom from British rule. The meetings, processions and demonstrations during the final phase of the Independence movement shown here were not the only important ones, but were typical of what was happening all over the Indian subcontinent, which became divided into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The earlier years were the last years of the world war. The needs of war had diverted whatever attention the British administration had paid to the needs of the people. Even though there were no shortages or crop failures due to drought, the railway system engaged in transporting troops and war supplies failed to provide wagons to carry food from the surplus areas to the areas of scarcity. Further, large stocks of food grains were commandeered by the British administration in anticipation of the needs of the troops in the Eastern Front. The black marketeers, expecting large profits from the rising prices of the wartime economy, hoarded food with impunity, creating one of the most terrible man-made famines, in which millions died.


Then, the communal distrusts and rivalries partitioned the country. The violence and slaughter of the riots which followed led to the mass migration of terrified refugees across the newly defined borders of India and the two Pakistans. Their impoverished economies did not make the task of rehabilitating these homeless millions easy for either country. The populations of the overcrowded big cities, where the poor people lived in conditions such as are shown in some of these photographs, multiplied several times within months. they built shacks in parks and pavements, in any space they could find, to live in. In Calcutta, where the influx was probably the largest, some of these are there even now.


The CPI was a banned underground organisation under British rule. It was legalised during the Second World War, when all other political parties were involved in the Quit India movement (1942), and opposed the British war effort. The communists were the only supporters of this effort, because they believed that fascism was the greater enemy and needed to be resisted and defeated first. The communists were most active on three fronts: the All India Trade Union Congress, the All India Kisan Sabha (Peasants' Union), and the All India Students' Federation. After Independence in 1947, the party wanted to support the progressive sections in the Congress, under the slogan "All-out aid to Nehru Govt", because they believed the struggle for freedom could be undertaken within the democratic framework of the new India. Within the party, an opposing group felt that it was the time for a revolutionary uprising of the working and peasant classes. This group led the Telengana (Andhra, South India) peasant uprising, and prevailed in the party, leading to the ouster of P. C. Joshi and others, like myself, who supported him, from the party.

I grew up in the thirties in Calcutta, which was then a centre of intense political and cultural activities. Most of my friends were political activists, writers and artists from the left. For us, freedom had meant, not just freedom from British rule, but freedom from all political, economic, social, or religious tyrannies. Like many others all over the world at the time, we had put our faith in socialism. I had joined the student wing of the communist party, and P.C. Joshi, the secretary of the party, had picked me up to work for the party's paper. He had recruited whatever talents he found, in a great many of us, in the services of the party and had made us feel proud of the privilege. I had neither chosen nor been trained to be a photographer, and, but for him, these photographs, documenting our times in India, may have never been taken.


The British had conquered and ruled over a major civilization for over two centuries. There had never been total abject submission to this: protests and uprisings against colonial rule had been frequent. These had always been ruthlessly suppressed, as was the great "mutiny of the Indian troops" in 1857.

The Indian National Congress had begun as an association of wealthy, landowners and professionals and moderates, who sought various concessions from the British. It had later become the flag bearer of the freedom movement under the leadership of the Mahatma. The masses of India were drawn into his inclusive, non-violent, non-cooperation movement, and a great many outstanding men and women had become its leaders.

Most of the well known faces of the 'forties are in these panels, and all of them had played significant roles in acheiving India's Independence. Two of them, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabh Bhai Patel, are remembered for their special roles.

            BOSE  AND  PATEL

Bose, a former Congress president, was a radical who broke away from the Congress to form the militant Forward Bloc. He escaped from a British prison during the war, travelled to Germany and Japan and recruited Indian prisoners of war and Indian nationals in South-East Asia to form the Indian National Army. This army marched on British India from Japanese-occupied Burma. Many Indians, epecially in Bengal, who expected him to return to India at the head of this army of liberation, heard instead of his mysterious death in an air crash.

Patel had taken on the tough job of persuading the many feudal princes (Maharajas and Sultans) of the native Indian states under British protectorate to relinquish their autocratic rule, clearing the way for these states to join the new Indian Union.


Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah were the three leaders who had influenced the course of events in the Indian subcontinent the most during its transition from British rule to independent India and Pakistan. Gandhi had been the moving spirit, and had drawn the masses into the freedom movement. Nehru became the foremost of a younger generation of leaders, and imparted his vision of a modern industrialised India to the nation. Jinnah had once been their colleague in the Indian National Congress, but had later formed the Muslim League, demanding a separate state for the Muslims of India. He was the catalyst for the partition of the country, although he had not anticipated the disasters that followed - the terrible riots and mass migrations, the hostilities and conflicts which have continued ever after, even though Pakistan eventually broke up, the Bengali speaking eastern part going through its own struggle and war of liberation to become Bangladesh - another separate country.

  - Sunil Janah


NEHRU'S AND GANDHI'S DIFFERENT VISIONS FOR INDIA  (text added 2004 from San Francisco Exhibition 2000)

Gandhi did not wish to transform India's agricultural economy into a modern industrial one, as he believed that this process had dire effects on the environment and the daily lives of the people. He wanted to continue, on a larger scale, the self-contained economy of the traditional village. But Nehru, the first prime minister, wanted to lift the masses out of their poverty rapidly. He saw that the only way to achieve this would be through industrialization and technical training.

ORIGINAL TEXT  (from New York Exhibition 1998)

India began to revitalise her old industries and to build vast new industial plants, dams and power stations soon after achieving her independence.

In the 1950's, Jawaharlal Nehru's "New Temples" of concrete and gleaming steel began to tower over the rice fields, transforming the countryside and the life of the people. But the workers - digging in the mines, rolling steel in the mills, processing jute, and loading bales - continued to do much of their work manually. This produced strange images, such as contingents of women, carrying cement mixtures in pans on their heads, against the giant sheet piling of a modern construction site.

 - Sunil Janah


This section consists of facial portraits, of political and cultural figures, that are not shown in the other sections. There is no text for this section. But see also the panel captions in:

  • Section 1, History in the Making, for political figures;
  • Section 4, Dance and Temple Sculpture, for dancers and others;
  • and Section 5, Land and People, for Calcutta personalities from the arts and sciences.


The civilization of ancient India is long gone, except for what remains in the hearts of its people. Impressive visual evidence of this civilization may still be found, however, in the great temples and exquisite temple sculptures, and also in the forts, mausoleums and palces built by the Moghals and the Rajput kings in a later period. I enjoyed photographing these monuments from India's past. A few of these photographs are part of this exhibition.

The temple sculptures are not only of the gods and godesses, but portray the everyday life of the times in peace and war, including religious austerities, pleasures, sensuality and sex, elephants, lions, cattle and legendary animals.

The liveliest components of these sculptures are the figures of celestial musicians and dancers, which have preserved India's classical dances and music in stone for centuries. These classical dances are very much alive, and are shown here in photographs of some of the best known dancers of my time.

The graceful ways in which the village people of India, particularly the tribals, dress, stand and move, seem to reflect the ancient sculptures in the temples.

- Sunil Janah



The "tribals", the survivors of the people who were who were the earlier inhabitants, are to the Indian subcontinent what the American "Indians" (First Americans) are to North and South America. The "Aryans" from the north, who settled in India at the dawn of history, could not, however, drive the indigenous people to near extinction by genocide, as in the new worlds of the Americas and Australia. Some were absorbed into the caste structures of the mainstream. Others were able to keep their distinctive ways and languish away in the inhospitable deserts, hills and forests, while the rich fertile plains were taken over by the new settlers. I had been enticed by their friendliness and hospitality to visit and live amongst them, in all parts of India. The Murias, from the Bastar plateau in Central India, occupy more than one panel because my friend Dr. Verrier Elwin's book "The Muria and their Ghotul", had intrigued me and, even after three visits lasting as many months, I feel that I would be happy to go back.


These photographs of the people of India, taken over 30 years of travelling all over the county, give you glimpses of the ordinary villagers from India's primarily rural and agricultural communities. A few others show their industries, their cities, and the magnificence of their past, preserved in ancient temples, monuments and classical dances. India, with Pakistan and Bangladesh on her wings, is more of a continent than a country, insulated from the rest of Asia by the Himalayas in the north and by the oceans and the coastal mountain ranges on the the two other sides of the peninsula. Within it, there are enormous differences in climates, religions, races, lnguages, habits of food and clothing and even in skin colour and other physical features. India has assimilated all her invaders, who settled and intermarried, losing their seperate identities. In the north-west, the "Caucasian" origins of the people are evident, but as you travel eastwards the features change into East Asian. The fair skins in the cold Himalayan north are darkened by the fierce sun in the Gangetic plains. The sun-burn deepens as you travel further south and Dravidian features begin to predominate.

Then there are the much older inhabitants, the "tribals", pushed into the inhospitable deserts, hills and forests. These are represented in the previous subsection.

- Sunil Janah

© Sunil Janah, 1998

Illustrated Version of this: Virtual Exhibition, NY '98
(under construction: section 5 ready)
Scenes from the NY Exhibition
Introduction to the NY'98 Exhibition Curator's Note
Exhibition Home Page Sunil Janah's Home Page