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Exhibition: San Francisco 2000

Sunil Janah: Inside India, 1940 - 1975

Historical and Cultural Background

Sunil Janah started photographing India in the early 1940's, when the subcontinent was still under British Rule. As a reporter and photographer for the People's War journal, he recorded the momentous events leading to the birth of the modern Indian state, and the turbulence that followed after independence.

India and Pakistan became independent states in August 1947, ending almost 200 years of British rule. The years before were marked by almost continuous political agitations against the British, as a new generation of Indians struggled to make the colonial power extend its ideals of liberty and justice to the ruled as well as to the rulers. The economic hardships of the Second World War fueled the unrest. A devastating man-made famine swept parts of India in the early 1940's. While the warehouses were full of grain, the British had taken over the transport and distribution systems for the war effort, and the food did not reach those who needed it. News of starvation was censored, while millions died.

Mr. Janah's camera recorded the famine, and the political meetings, the demonstrations, the peasant farmers' uprisings, the reprisals and the riots. He photographed the now-legendary figures of the independence movement, including Mahatma Gandhi; Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India; Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan; and Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the charismatic politician.

The months before and after independence and the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines into India and Pakistan were marked by atrocious communal violence. A bewildered people, faced with an arbitrary partition line that sometimes bisected villages and nearly always caused dispossession and loss, turned its rage and despair upon itself. Hindus and Sikhs battled Muslims, slaughtering one another on an unprecedented scale. Mr. Janah recorded the communal riots in Bengal, in the east of India, and the flight of refugees across the border.

The partition of the country marked a turning point for Mr. Janah. He turned away from politics and focused more on the life of the common people of India, recording both the timeless patterns of life in India's villages and the attempts to modernize and adapt to the accelerating forces of change.

In the 1950's and 1960's, India implemented a series of five-year economic plans. Mr. Janah traveled all over the country, photographing the massive industrial projects launched by the newly independent, newly hopeful nation - the dams and iron-and-steel plants that were to catapult India into modernity. He also continued to document the traditional life of the country - the farmers, the fisherpeople and the craftspeople pursuing centuries-old professions on the brink of major change.

The city of Calcutta, where Mr. Janah was based, was a center of the nation's intellectual and artistic life. His photographs of leading dancers, artists, poets, musicians and scientists reflect the optimism and creative energy of this period. At this time, too, there was a revival of interest in the nation's ancient - and often neglected - architectural monuments. Mr. Janah went on assignment to photograph palaces, forts, temples, mosques and mausoleums. In particular, he took every opportunity to photograph, in detail, the lavishly sculpted Hindu temples of eastern India.

Simultaneously, Mr. Janah continued to pursue a lifelong interest in the tribal peoples of India - such as the Santhals, Murias, Gadavas, Garos, Mishmis and Nagas. These peoples, often living in remote mountains and forests, at the time represented an almost separate, self-contained universe. The integrity of their languages, customs, traditions and laws had withstood, through millennia, the powerful currents of the mainstream cultures of India. Now, decades later, rapid economic change and dispossession are forcing assimilation on the tribals. Mr. Janah's photographs provide a historical record of ancient modes of life that may well be on their way to extinction.

Today, as the information revolution sweeps India, holding out a promise of undreamed-of prosperity as well as the threat of social upheaval, the photographs in this exhibition serve as a reminder of the drama, tragedy and heroism of the years of modern India's birth. They provide a glimpse of the complex tapestry that is the country's history, and offer the new generation of Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Bangladeshi-Americans and others from the subcontinent a deeper understanding of their identity.

    - Monua Janah

  © Monua Janah 2000


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