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web head-notes:
  • This review, by Vicki Goldberg \1 , of the exhibition "Sunil Janah: Photographing India, 1942-1978", appeared in the 1998, August 21 Friday issue of The New York Times, on page E36, in the "Weekend - FINE ARTS LEISURE" section, PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW.

  • Among other things, this article emphasizes the connection \2 between Janah and Margaret Bourke-White, and compares their approaches to photographing a common subject. (Please see web-notes below.)

  • A slightly abridged version of this appeared, later, in the 1998, August 29-30 Sat-Sun issue of The International Herald Tribune . That version, on page 8 (ART section) was titled:"Photo Chronicle of India From Another Angle".

The New York Times
(local cached copy of article)

August 21, 1998, Friday


PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW;  Looking at India's Upheaval From the Inside (and the Side)

In the beginning, photography was referred to as the handmaid of art. It might have been called the valet of history as well, for it promised to serve its times, make them presentable and arrange for them to appear unwilted onstage before large audiences in very long plays. These services have been something of a mixed blessing. The handmaid eventually tried to usurp her mistress's place, and the valet often sent history into the world naked.

In almost every country, photographers picked up cameras and recorded people and events as a matter of course. Many of these dutiful guardians of history remained unknown outside their nation's borders, some almost unknown within them. Often enough the local talent, like Martin Chambi in Peru or Seydou Keita in Mali, photographers in countries that had been isolated or colonized or only made highly visible in the industrialized West by visiting photographers, have only recently been discovered by foreigners. Much has been written in our day suggesting that such photographers might see things differently from occupying powers or relative strangers.

A case in point is the work of Sunil Janah, an 80-year-old Indian photographer whose work during World War II, the struggle for independence and the postwar years in India is little known in the United States but highly regarded in his native land, where a limited number of images have been shown repeatedly. Now more than 300 of his photographs, many never exhibited or published anywhere before, are on view in ''Sunil Janah: Photographing India 1942-1978'' at the Gallery at 678 in the East Village.

A few of Mr. Janah's pictures have been traveling in the United States for the last two years in a show and book called ''India: A Celebration of Independence 1947-1997,'' and a larger exhibition was at Fotofest in Houston in 1990, but other than 20 or so photographs at the Overseas Press Club in 1985, this is the first time his work has been shown in New York.

Ram Rahman, curator of the current show, has grouped this huge outpouring of unframed pictures, which include exhibition prints, work prints and contact sheets, on large panels. The contact sheets reveal that the photographer radically cropped his pictures, excising heads from waist-length portraits to create tight close-ups. Explanatory captions provide indispensable background for some of the historical material.

Mr. Janah was a political reporter during World War II and for a short while after, taking many candid photographs of Gandhi, Nehru and other politicians and dramatic shots of demonstrations. Pictorial records can uncover the naked ironies of history. In a picture made in Calcutta in 1946, when rationing was still in force, people standing in line for food can be identified by their dress as a mixed group of Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Two days later, murderous riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims; Mr. Janah photographed bloated bodies lying in the street. Later still, he photographed the aftermath: a barbed-wire fence separating the Hindu and Muslim quarters.

Disgusted with politics, Mr. Janah soon gave up such reporting. For years he took studio portraits, strongly lighted, of India's leading political and artistic figures. He photographed famous dancers in sequences of stills and Hindu temple sculptures that celebrate some of the qualities visible in the dance. Contact sheets of a dancer's exaggerated facial expressions, odd to Western eyes, document the importance of mime in Indian dance. On commission, Mr. Janah also took highly designed industrial pictures that look like images of the 1930's, in part because they speak of a similar level of hope in industrialization.

He photographed Indian tribal people extensively, evidently enjoying their openness and sensual ease. A few women posed like pin-ups; Mr. Janah says they fell into such poses without his direction, though they had never seen a camera. Over and over, they smiled: at him, at one another, at some remark, exuding more natural gaiety than coaxing ever calls forth at urban birthday parties. He recalls that working with these people was a great relief after hidebound middle-class Indian life. His pictures, which must have been meaningful to anthropologists, have turned into an irreplaceable record of people whose lives were later radically changed by development.

Americans saw India's complex and terror-filled progress to independence chiefly through Margaret Bourke-White's magisterial photographs in Life magazine and her book ''Halfway to Freedom,'' or through Henri Cartier-Bresson's on-the-spot reportage. A comparison of Mr. Janah's insider reports and Bourke-White's work is particularly revealing because he accompanied her and translated for her in some of her travels around the country shortly before independence.

A reporter, he had become a Communist (like many in the intellectual classes at the time) as well as a professional photographer in 1942, to take pictures of the Bengal famine for People's War, the Communist magazine. Mr. Janah said the famine, which killed two million people in Bengal alone and then spread south, was caused by the diversion of plentiful supplies of grain to British troops, by middlemen who then set prohibitive prices, and by British destruction of the barges that might have carried what was available to stricken districts. None of this was reported in the mainstream press, which was censored by British authorities.

Mr. Janah photographed lines of emaciated people waiting for food, groups of skeletons, hungry dogs gnawing at human bones. People's War gave this secret famine enormous amounts of space. Postcards of Mr. Janah's images were printed and sent across the world to raise funds. These pictures were not censored because the Communists were the only Indian party supporting the British. The magazine had publicly called on Indians to recognize that Fascism was the real enemy and that sabotage of British war efforts hurt everyone's interests.

Bourke-White sought out Mr. Janah because of his reputation, skills and access. He was happy enough to let Life pay the expenses of the Communist Party's photographer. One group of photographs at the gallery shows Bourke-White herself with tripod and large-format camera. More provocative are a few images of the same subjects taken by both. The American knew how to make monumental and memorable images, full of dignity, sorrow and a formal air of permanence: temporary images elevated to mythic stature. The Indian was frequently more informal and candid, not necessarily better or worse but wholly different in approach.

He says today that he did not have the disadvantage of being a woman or a foreigner. Another and even more pragmatic reason explains why he often photographed from an angle while she usually stood directly in front of her subjects. She had a flash arrangement keyed to her shutter, which set off several lights when she took the picture. Mr. Janah was using a hand-held Rolleiflex that had no flash. He asked her to let him know when she was going to photograph, then he took his picture at a rapid shutter speed by the light that she provided.

Thus was history recorded simultaneously by photographers whose different equipment, nationalities, approaches and probably temperaments made it a variable commodity. Sometimes these two photographers worked on parallel rather than identical tracks, sometimes they went their own ways, but the distinctions often showed up nonetheless.

They were photographing from different personal positions and for different audiences as well. Bourke-White's bold, static, iconic images were an effective form of shorthand to sum up major events in a photo essay for a public that knew little of the place or people. Mr. Janah's style, similar in many ways to hers, tended to be looser, somewhat more caught on the wing and intimate. No doubt this worked well for people who were living the events themselves and could readily identify the signs of caste and religion that photographs automatically picked up.

Two faithful servants of history with slightly varying notions of the job description prove once again that keeping accounts is not as straightforward as it looks.

Published: 08 - 21 - 1998 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 36

Copyright The New York Times Company.

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  1. Vicki Goldberg, the reviewer, is the author of a biography of Margaret Bourke-White.

  2. 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 /4 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.

  3. 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. Rayalseema and Mysore are now part of the modern Indian states of Andhra and Karnataka, respectively.
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