This is a local copy of the exhibition review by Neelanjana Banerjee entitled Janah Retrospective Charts India's Multitudes . This article appeared in the City Pages - San Francisco Bay Area section of the Sep xx issue of the web journal thinkIndia . This local copy is provided for the user's convenience in case the link has expired or is unreachable.
Janah Retrospective Charts India’s Multitudes
By NEELANJANA BANERJEE
Each of Sunil Janah’s large black and white prints capture a moment of India’s history: the bulging ribs of peasants during the 1943 famine, Gandhi preparing for a speech as he travels alone in a third class train compartment, the shining smile of a tribal girl.
Perhaps India’s most important photojournalist, Janah documents the vibrancy of India’s transformation into modern times. He was there to photograph the massive famine of the 1940s, the fierceness of the events leading to independence and the turbulence that followed afterwards.
“It was happening around me and I was there at the right time,” Janah told thinkIndia. “It was an amazing time.”
A selection of his images, Sunil Janah: Inside India, 1940-1975, will be shown through October 14 at the Kalart Gallery, 855 Sansome Street, in San Francisco.
Eighty-two-year-old Janah, who now lives in England, is nearly blind and suffering from poor health, but still he roamed around the gallery on opening night answering questions about his work.
This is the first show of Janah’s work on the West Coast and he selected the photographs himself. “I wanted to touch on as many subjects as I could and really show what was going on in India at the time,” Janah said. The show contains nearly 175 photographs.
Janah’s renowned photography career came unexpectedly and suddenly.
He was a student of English literature at St. Xavier’s and Presidency colleges in the early 1940s with plans to become an English professor. Photography, he said, was just a hobby.
But he was associated with the student wing of the Communist party. And when famine broke out in 1943, party secretary P.C. Joshi asked Janah to be his photographer as he set out to document the horrors of the man-made tragedy for the Communist paper, People’s War.
“I was about to sit for my M.A. exam,” Janah recalled. “But I went along anyway and that made me a photographer overnight.”
Janah’s photographs of the famine, including such striking images as piles of skeletons in a withered field and an emaciated dog feeding on a corpse, were seen across the world.
“It was a painful experience,” Janah said. “I was not helping these dying people I was just sticking a camera in their faces. But the reports we did and my pictures brought relief funds. We helped bring an end to the drought.”
Janah later went on to become the photography director for the People’s War and then for the newspaper People’s Age. In the 50s and 60s, Janah began to freelance and his photographs were published in most of India’s major publications.
He traveled and worked with American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who was sent to India on assignment for Life magazine. They worked together to produce the images for her book Halfway to Freedom, which showed India’s harsh struggle for independence and modernity to Americans.
After becoming disillusioned with the communist party, Janah set up a studio in Calcutta and became known for his portraits of the people of India, from political leaders to famous artists. Two sections of his show are made up of these brightly lit, up-close portraits.
At this time, Janah’s Calcutta studio became a meeting place for both Indian and foreign intellectuals and artists. “Being a photographer, I had come to know many people and often they would bring their friends through my studio—which was not even a real studio but just the front room of our house,” Janah said. “I would show them my photographs and for many foreigners it was an easy way to give them a tour of the entire country.”
The most extensive part of Janah’s show is his focus on the people of India’s cities, towns and villages. His most renowned and personal favorite photographs are those of tribal people. Janah traveled throughout India to capture the aboriginal people of the mountains, forests and coastal lands.
“Photographing the tribals was an escape from the rest of the world,” he said. In these photographs, Janah manages to uncover the beauty and innocence of the tribal people, who at this time still lived a life untouched by the rest of the world. Today, development has forced them to assimilate and Janah’s photographs capture their lost culture.
Janah especially captures the vibrancy of the young women and some of the strongest pictures in the collection are portraits of tribal women in Kerala. He said that they posed perfectly and without direction even though they had never seen a camera.
The show also includes some of Janah’s portraits of classical dancers and studies of ancient Indian temple sculptures. Janah received the Padmashri award from the Indian government in 1972 for his achievements. At the age of 64, Janah migrated to England with his wife Shoba, a medical researcher, and their two children. His children now live in the United States.
“I did this show because my daughter, who lives in the Bay Area, suggested I do a show on the West Coast,” he said. Janah no longer takes photographs because of his poor eyesight.
“I am mostly blind now,” he said. “I can no longer see the details that made my photographs important. I can no longer see those facial expressions that could be gone in an instant.”
Janah said that he is too old to enjoy all the action surrounding his exhibitions, but is glad to be able to show the photographs to show people the beauty and complexity of India.
“I cannot say that I have captured the multitudes that India is,” he said. “I don’t think any collection can truly capture what India is visually. But these photographs can begin to help people understand how vast it is.”