This is a local copy of a review of the exhibition "Sunil Janah: Inside India 1945-1975". The review, by Vandana Makker, appeared in the September 22, 2000 issue of INDIA WEST, on page C12. Copyrights for the text and for the photograph of Mr. Janah at the exhibition site reside with Vandana Makker and India West.   Other photographs © Sunil Janah.
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Sunil Janah:  Capturing India One Frame at a Time

By  VANDANA MAKKER
India-West Staff Reporter

SAN FRANCISCO - He was not trying to inspire generations of Indian photographers; he simply wanted to document the times in which he lived.

It just so happened, however, that Sunil Janah took his photographs in a period of India's history that changed the face of the country forever; and Janah himself helped launch what was, in his time, a nearly nonexistent art form in India.

Janah documented India's struggle for independence, its partition, and the transforming urbanization of the following decades, mainly for the communist newspaper The People's War.

His first West Coast exhibit, "Inside India", on display now at the Kalart Gallery here, explores not only his revealing portraits of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and others, but his passion for photographing village and tribal life in India.


            Mahatma Gandhi in a third class railway car,
            on his way to the Simla conference, 1946.

"I actually set out to take photographs of the Indian people," Janah told India-West. "What happened was that I was linked with the party at the time, and the party asked me to take photographs of political leaders for the journal. That required traveling all over India. Wherever I went, I found the people around, and photographing them was a fascinating thing to do."

His portraits of political events are shot with an amazing clarity, yet Janah said that "just taking pictures of meetings and things didn't completely absorb me." After each assignment, Janah would take time off to visit nearby villages or remote tribes to take pictures of what he loved best: "life in India".

Janah said that he wanted to capture every aspect of life in India during his time. The task might have proved daunting for some, considering the enormous scope of life in India, but, somehow, Janah managed to do it. The photographs on display show politics, village life, tribal people, city streets, ancient architecture, classical dancers, and much more. Together, they create a tapestry that documents life in Janah's India.

 

"Sunil Janah gazes at his photographs, which revolutionized Indian photography."
- Vandana Makker, India-West

Being a professional photographer in the 1940's and 50's, however, was far from easy. People did not entirely know what to make of the man with the camera. Many times, while on assignment with his journalistic colleagues, Janah said he was allocated quarters with the electricians and not with his colleagues - writers and artists. "A photographer was considered to be someone who is quite inferior," he said. "Luckily, I saw the humor in it."

Janah, who is now 82, can describe any of his photographs in total detail. Many of the most striking ones, he says, were just "happy accidents. But you have to have the eye to see that it will be a good accident."

One such photo is "News of Gandhi's Assassination Reaches Calcutta, 1948." The image captured is one of masses of people in the street and, in the corner, one man shielding his head with a newspaper flashing a headline about Gandhi's death.

"That was an extraordinarily lucky accident," Janah told India-West. "Nobody believes that the image was captured so perfectly. They think that I superimposed the newspaper on the photograph!"

The picture is a perfect juxtaposition of the printed word and the people it affects. The words appear simple, yet the reactions of the people are incredibly complex.

Janah's experiences with the villagers and tribal people were equally complex. Most villagers, he said, were happy to have their pictures taken, which is evident in the relaxed smiles captured on film. The tribals, though, were often seeing a camera for the first time. "Many of them ran away from me. They thought I was a doctor coming to give them injections," Janah said, laughing.

He described one girl who began to cry when she saw the camera, because, previously, a man had had his picture taken and then died a few weeks later. "She thought the camera took away people's souls," Janah explained.

His ability to travel with ease among both high-powered politicians and remote tribespeople makes the scope of Janah's photographs extremely rewarding for viewers. This is truly "life in India", but most people, even those in India, never see it in its entirety.

Although all of the photographs on display are in black and white, the photography pioneer, who resides in England, said that he occasionally takes color photos. "In those days, color film was limited, and had to be sent to England for developing. I'm not opposed to color film, but I think I still prefer black and white," he said.

When this reporter, quite awkwardly, asked to take Janah's picture, he was extremely kind. Afterwards, he asked, "what kind of camera do you have? Oh yes, point and shoot. Everybody uses one of them now. Even I have one."

"Inside India" will be shown at the Kalart Gallery, 855 Sansome St., third floor, through Oct. 12. Signed, mounted archival prints made by Janah are available. High quality digital prints are also for sale.

- Vandana Makker


Note added, 2000.12.20:
Print prices etc., mentioned in the review's final paragraph, have been omitted from the web copy above. Please contact sjanah@aol.com for details.
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