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The following is a review, by Sunil Mehra, of an exhibition of Sunil Janah's photographs at the Shridharini Art Gallery (Delhi, 1991 ?). It appeared in The Times of India ? on ?

Two of the photographs mentioned in Mehra's text have been added, along with captions, as illustrations for web-viewers. The copyrights for these photographs belong to the photographer, Sunil Janah.

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Sunil Janah

Renaissance spirit


Sunil Mehra finds that a timeless quality and aesthetic sensitivity characterizes an exhibition of photographs culled from a lifetime's work.
Lane in Benares (Varanasi), N.India, 1950's

Right: A lane in the "holy city"
-Varanasi/ Banaras/ Benares,
Uttar Pradesh, N. India.
© Sunil Janah 1950

The morning haze is smoke - mainly
from outdoor stoves being fired up
- and also from incense burners.

 

His is a Renaissance spirit - Janah has the heart of a painter, the eye of an anthropologist and a compelling sense of history. Added to which, he is a superb technician of his craft, considering the stupendous results he achieved with his Leica 3 and Rolleiflex cameras in the early forties. This is photography at its best - as art and social document.

Janah admits his debt to Ansel Adams, and especially Margaret Bourke-White, with whom he worked in the forties. "She taught me not to economize on film. She would put her Leinhoff on a tripod and keep on clicking till she captured the exact mood or image she wanted."

Janah's work is equally remarkable for its superb technique, composition, frugality and rendition of natural light. His pictures of Calcutta shot from the Hoghly river, or of the Muria tribal youths from Bastar beating their hollowed out tree-trunk 'pitkara' drums are masterpieces in this respect. "I cannot understand the fuzzy pictures that are called art pictures nowadays. That's visual pyrotechnics. A photograph should at least have clarity. If you must paint, use a brush instead."

As a young party photographer for the CPI in 1943, Janah's harrowing images of the Bengal famine not only helped swell relief and CPI funds, but also catapulted him into international fame. But the experience left him traumatized. "I felt like a cad, intruding on private grief and photographing human misery, but that is part of one's life as a photographer."

The desolation on the face of the Bengali village woman, the dog eating a human corpse, the outstretched hands of the Mysore famine victims - these are stark, unforgettable images of human want and deprivation, documented by Janah.

Janah's association with Verrier Elwin proved fruitful. A natural curiosity about people developed into an abiding interest in anthropology. He has the chameleon-like quality of adapting to his surroundings, becoming one with his subject. His pictures of tribals are not intrusive, and definitely not posed for. The pictures of the Mahasu youth putting a bindi on his girl, the Bhil girl embracing her sister, the Muria boys and girls in a 'ghotul' in Bastar are striking because the subjects are unselfconscious. He is at pains to emphasize that his pictures of Kerala women are not 'nudes'. These are people in their own milieu - their easy body language confirms this fact.

The pictures of Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Patel, Margaret Bourke White and Mrs. Gandhi are not only of historical value but also of artistic merit. Janah captures not only the image, but also the essence of these people. Nehru's pensive quality, Gandhi's utter simplicity, Sardar Patel's brooding sombre quality, Margaret Bourke White's windblown aspect, J. Krishnamurthy's inner luminosity and Mrs. Gandhi's air of reticence. Punjabi women relaxing on back doorstep, 1940's  
© Sunil Janah

What stays with you is a certain timeless quality in Janah's photographs. He looks through through the lens into the soul of his subject and captures its very essence. The images of Punjabi women grinding grain or relaxing on the doorstep are timeless. One has the immediate visual recall of innumerable such moments. The picture of a lane in Varanasi evokes the same instant recognition - the wandering cow, the sadhu, the narrow cobbled street. You can almost hear the temple bells and smell the incense. Perhaps the most abiding image is of the farmer tilling his field. A sinewy dark figure framed against a vast open sky in a half-tilled field.
      Punjabi women, relaxing after completing the morning chores, 1940's
      © Sunil Janah

It is a pity that no printed catalogue of the photographer's work was available at the Sridharini Art Gallery. One hopes that the Lalit Kala Akademi will make such a catalogue available at the planned retrospective on Sunil Janah's work sometime later this year.

- Sunil Mehra


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