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web head-notes:
  • This review, by P.C. Smith, of the exhibition "Sunil Janah: Photographing India, 1942-1978", appeared in the April 1999 issue of Art in America.

  • Some images and footnotes have been added to this web posting of the article.

Art in America
(local cached copy of article)

April, 1999

Sunil Janah at the Gallery at 678

By P.C. Smith
Although almost unknown abroad, Sunil Janah might be considered the Gilbert Stuart of India, having made definitive photographic portraits of many of the leaders of India's independence struggle.  The earliest portrait here, only recently rediscovered, is of Nehru in 1939, already looking statesmanlike against the Mughal architecture of his Allahabad home. 

At the time, Janah was a courier in the Communist underground, delivering letters to the oft-jailed Congress Party leader.  Janah soon became photographic director for the Communist Party newspaper, People's War \1. His photographs were direct, conventional and well-crafted (for instance, he bleached and toned prints to enhance the black-and-white values in his 2-by-2 Rolleiflex negatives).  What set his work apart, though, is his historical insight and journalistic ambitiousness, which led him from one end of India to the other during this heroic (and tragic) period.

The portraits of Gandhi include several particularly saintly looking ones taken at a prayer meeting the day before his assasination in 1948, as well as another of him embracing Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim proponent of partition. 


Janah also portrayed the Dalit (Untouchable) leader, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, and, in 1971, the doomed Rajiv Gandhi \2, with his wife Sonia and children (currently the leading hopes of Congress renewal).

Janah's most horrific images, featured in People's War, were of the famines in 1942, which he argued were caused by diversion of grain and transport to the British war effort\3.  One stark photograph shows a dog gnawing the remains of a human corpse.  Janah also documented India's increasing industrialization and labor struggles.  When Margaret Bourke-White was posted to India by Life from 1945 to '48, she sought out Janah for his access to subjects.\4  They developed an intimate working relationship, with Janah benefitting from her ample budget.

Janah chose to leave the Communist Party when liberals were evicted in 1948, and set up a studio in Calcutta.  His portraits of Satyajit Ray, Jamini Roy, Krishnamurti and others document artistic and intellectual life there in the '50's.  He also made several documentary series which were published in books.  One of these, The Tribals of India: Through the Lens of Sunil Janah (1993) \5, is particularly interesting for his pictures from the '50s of the Murias, an isolated mountain tribe from Western Orissa,\6 famous for their revealing style of dress and sensual, communal adolescent life.

This retrospective of over 300 prints was assembled by the activist-photographer Ram Rahman from Janah's archives when Janah, now 80, was dangerously ill.  Rahman printed several long-forgotten negatives, but luckily Janah still possessed an excellent selection of fairly large, vintage exhibition prints.  Although mounted informally in an unassuming space, the exhibition was a model for meaningful documentary.

-- P.C. Smith

Art of America, April 1999
© Art of America and P.C. Smith.

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1.  the Communist Party newspaper, People's War...
People's War, the name of the CPI journal during the years of the second world war, alluded to the war against fascism, which was, for many of those years, being waged on Soviet, Yugoslav and Chinese soil.  The name was later changed to People's Age.

2.  Janah also photographed ... the doomed Rajiv Gandhi, with his wife Sonia and children
Janah also photographed, on this and earlier occasions, Rajiv's mother, Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter. All three, Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv, served as Prime Ministers of India. Both Indira and Rajiv were assasinated, the mother because of events associated with a Sikh independence movement, and the son as a result of India's involvement in a civil war in Sri Lanka.

3.  famines in 1942 ... caused by diversion of grain and transport to the British war effort...
The "Bengal Famine" was precipitated by the diversion of grains to stocks for the troops in the Allies' eastern front, and compounded by hoarding by profiteers. It devastated Bengal, Orissa and contiguous regions in Eastern India, in '43-'44. This happened despite good harvests in those years. The news and pictures of this famine, appearing relatively uncensored in "People's War", fuelled people's anger over British misrule, and helped swell relief funds. This is a very early illustration of the economist Amartya Sen's thesis that most famines are man-made, and that democracy and a free press are the best preventive measures against the recurrence of such famines.

4.  When Margaret Bourke-White was posted to India... she sought out Janah..
Janah had become known through his photographs of the "Bengal Famine" /3 of 1943-44. These, appearing in the pro-British-war-effort Communist Party magazine, "People's War", escaped British censorship, and publicized this man-made famine, in which millions died.  Bourke White sought Janah out because of this. They worked together as a team to photograph the famine as it spread into Rayalseema and Mysore (now part of Andhra and Karnataka states) in South India, in 1945. Then came the turbulence of events preceding and following Gandhi's assasination.  Bourke-White's photographs appeared in Life magazine. She wrote about Janah in her book "Halfway to Freedom".  Those who have seen the popular movie "Gandhi" may remember the actress Candice Bergen's portrayal of Ms. Bourke-White.

5.  The Tribals of India: Through the Lens of Sunil Janah
Oxford University Press (India), 1993 (1st ed.) and 2003 (2nd ed.)

6.  the Murias, an isolated mountain tribe from Western Orissa...
Janah actually photographed the Murias, not in Orissa, but rather in the adjoining State of Madhya Pradesh, in a region known as Bastar. This area is now part of the newly created Chhattisgarh state. See also Janah's review of Ramachandra Guha's book on the "philanthropologist" Verrier Elwin.
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