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web head-notes:
  • This biographical review, by Ram Rahman, of the work of the Indian photographer, Sunil Janah, appeared in the March 1995 issue (Living Treasures, p.28-30) of Seminar (New Delhi, India).

  • This is a draft that needs to be proofread.  Some images and annotations will be added later to this web posting of the article.

Seminar,  March 1995
(local cached copy of article)

A world in black and white


AMONG  the many unwritten histories of modernism in the arts in India, photography has been more neglected than most.  A fair amount of attention has been focused on scholarly practitioners, particularly the British photographers who came to work here in the infancy of the new medium, but the earlier half of the twentieth century has been ignored.  One figure who stands out in this history is Sunil Janah from Bengal, now 77 years old.

It was perhaps inevitable that Bengal would produce the outstanding figure in Indian photography in the forties -- thrown up from a cultural milieu which was urban, cosmopolitan, highly educated, politically ablaze, and highly artistically sensitized.  Any reflection on this period inevitably involves a close look at the national movement and all the radical streams it generated in Indian society.  Photography, by the very nature of the medium, was ideally placed to play a more directly activist role in the struggle for independence from colonial rule and social justice, and Janah, more than any other figure in India, seized on its creative possibilities to produce a body of work rich in detail and expansive in its breadth.

As a student of English in Calcutta's Presidency College, Janah had plunged headlong into leftwing politics on the campus and had joined the Student Federation.  'Photography was my hobby and I was good at it', says Janah, who was photographing party activities at the time with his own Rolleiflex camera.  Intending to became a journalist, he had never thought of becoming a photographer.  He came under the influence of P.C. Joshi, secretary of the Communist Party, who became both a mentor and a close friend.  Joshi approached him to photograph the famine while he was studying for his MA at the University in 1943.

As they travelled through Bengal, Janah's photographs appeared with Joshi's reporting on the famine in the pages of the party journal People's War.  These pictures were also produced as postcards which were sold to raise funds for famine relief.  'Overnight I found I had become a photographer.'  Janah gained immediate recognition for these pictures, that were seen not just in India, but were also published in the Communist Party sister papers 'all over the world... in England, Australia and even the United States.'  After this, Joshi persuaded Janah to quit his MA, move to the party headquarters in Bombay, and live in the party commune for the next six years.  The party bought him a 35mm Leica, and gave him a membership card.  'I was a non-joiner -- I didn't join photographic societies, join this, join that.  When I was accepted as a member and the card was given to me, I didn't resist!'  About his politics Janah says, 'Practically every intelligent creative person back then was a leftist... it was in the air.'  He felt that the Congress represented the tradition of liberal humanism... which was not enough to bring justice to the poor.  I felt that with the Congress the power would just be transferred from the British capitalists to the Indian capitalists... which is exactly what happened.

In Bombay, Sunil Janah published regularly on the back page of People's Age, his writing accompanying the photos he took all over India.  He credits People's Age for pioneering work in India in its extensive use of photography, unusual for a paper cheaply produced with party funds.  It was during this period that he documented all the political actions and meetings of the Congress, the Communists and the Muslim League.  This led him to a close familiarity with all the major leaders of the national movement, and his portraits of them are famous icons we have all grown up with, in most cases not knowing the name of the photographer.

Janah had won a 5th prize in the competition for amateurs run by the Illustrated Weekly of India as a twelve year old, and an uncle /1 had given him a book -- Making a Photograph -- by the American Ansel Adams, which had made him realize that 'till a print was finished and on a gallery wall, a photograph was not complete.'  The craft was critical and the basis of any substantive work.  This level of awareness was unquestionably rooted in the extremely cosmopolitan outlook of the Bengali middle class, and would have been rare even in Bombay at the time.  He cites his familiarity with painting as a major influence on how he made his pictures.  Always particular about the aesthetics of the image and its composition, he abhorred the shoddiness of the unconsidered snapshot -- even in the relatively mundane reportage of a political meeting.

By accidentally becoming a photographer because of his social and political convictions, the self-conscious intellectual and artistic awareness he brought to his work immediately set it apart from most of the work being done in India at the time.  Janah's involvement with the national struggle, right from the beginning of his career as an artist, puts his body of work in a unique position, matched only perhaps by contemporary literature.

Sunil Janah gained quick recognition outside party circles for the quality of his work, which started appearing regularly in The Statesman and the Illustrated Weekly of India, other than the party publications.  Much of the work published in the Weekly came from the various photographic societies all over India, the members of which followed a romantic, pictorialist style of work strongly derived from similar work being done in Britain.

While Janah knew many of these photographers and their work, he was conscious of his work being very different.  'Many people thought it fashionable to be dismissive of this work, but I never was.  I never wanted to do similar work myself, with manipulated or solarized images, but appreciated images that had an aesthetic content.'  He was obviously very conscious of the subject of his work.  The early bodies of work he produced in the forties as a twenty-something -- the famines, the aftermath of the Royal Indian Mutiny in 1946, the portraits of political personalities, peasant revolts -- led him to the slow realization that he was producing a lasting document of momentous happenings and figures.

In terms of style, much of this work was in the 'heroic left' mode -- shot from a low angle looking up, which tended to give a mythic dimension to the subject.  When asked how aware he was of this as a deliberate stylistic device, Janah says that the twin lens Rolleiflex camera itself dictated this sty;e which involved shooting from the waist up.  But he had also seen the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin and the German filmmakers and said that the look was also in the air at the time.  A turning point was his meeting with the already famous American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who came to shoot in India for Life magazine.

'P.C. Joshi teamed me with her to travel all over India in 1945-46, and I worked with her again during the Partition when she returned.  On her second trip I had gone to Noakhali and we photographed the Calcutta riots -- she took me into the Muslim areas in the middle of the riots and and said she would pass me off as an American Black in case we were questioned, and not to speak Bengali!  In fact, until I worked with Bourke-White, I always had a regret that I was turning into a photographer in spite of myself.  I had half an eye towards journalism.  She made me realize that photography could say something equally strong.  In fact I was saying it already, but I didn't know I was!  Her enthusiasm for the medium was infectious, and after that, there was no turning back.  When we met we immediately became very close friends because I found I had a similar style and approach -- I felt she was an advanced replica of myself -- she had done it longer, she was more famous, more successful.  In fact she was the most famous photographer of her time.  She was 36 and I was 26.'

To see Janah's pictures and those of Bourke-White side by side is a revelation.  The astonished reaction of ordinary Indians to a young, attractive, short-haired white woman in pants and boots is apparent in every picture of hers.  Satnding aside, Janah captures a totally different mood.  These paired pictures are worthy of a show and a book on their own.  Janah developed a distaste for continuing to photograph disasters like famines.  He began to feel that it was an intrusion into the grief of the victims.  He was also becoming increasingly disillusioned by the party, reacting to the more doctrinaire elements within it.  'As long as I was left alone to do my back page, I was fine, but then when they started demanding a red flag waving in every picture, I got very annoyed.  The last straw came when they actually cut out flags and stuck them on the pictures!'  Janah started spending more time in Calcutta towards 1946-47 and finally moved back there.  He had also left the party by this time.  Janah feels that whatever assessment has been made of him as a photographer has overemphasized the forties phase, which actually is only a part of a much larger body of work.

He opened a studio and started doing commercial work in Calcutta.  This is also the period in which he began to photograph dancers, becoming one of the important documentors of the dance revival.  He was approached by Ragini Devi because of his reputation, and became a dance photographer.  Balasaraswati, Shanta Rao, Indrani Rahman and Ritha Devi were all photographed by him, and his extended work on Shanta Rao is a remarkable record of a legendary dancer, in the days before any filmed records of these performers existed.  This is one aspect of his work little known to those outside the dance community.  Janah had already developed an interest in photographing the ordinary people and life he saw around him as he travelled on his political assignments, and would remain behind to do portraits and [document] living and working habits. 

This maturing vision of the photograph as a 'human document' led him to another major project along with the anthropologist Verrier Elwin -- documenting the tribals of India.  This had already started under United Nations assignments for Unesco.  Covering almost all the major tribes and regions, this collection is unique in its innocent appreciation of a tradition and a people who were then less overwhelmed by the pressures of the economic scene and by the weight of outside demands of an exploding population on their unspoilt environments.  Janah's tribal pictures have an obvious delight in the discovery of an innocent and open lifestyle, deeply rooted in the rhythms of nature and geography.  They revel in the simple activities of daily life and document the rituals, shrines and dances of these societies.  Janah didn't bring an anthropological background to this project -- he didn't record the myths, didn't collect the art -- he simply reacted with his camera.  The scale and scope of this document is truly remarkable. 

Photographing temple sculpture had become another focus during Janah's travels.  This developed from a personal interest in art and history.  Many of the pictures which made temples like those at Konarak and Bhubaneswar famous were shot by Sunil Janah, picked up by Marg magazine and other publishers and extensively published without adequate credit.  Again, these images became icons and were the images through which an entire generation of Indians discovered their artistic heritage.  In this lack of credit and renumeration, Janah also embodies the exploited and underpaid photographer, a condition which became rampant in India, and which has been a primary reason for the shaky development of the profession there.

The fifties in Calcutta saw Janah getting an increasing number of industrial assignments in the coal mines, tea gardens, the Damodar valley project and other areas of the newly industrializing nation.  Janah had become one of the major industrial photographers of the period and brought his full technical and artistic vision to this new area, producing another remarkable historical document.  Only a handful of these pictures have been seen by the wider public and most of them sit as contacts with his negatives in Delhi.  Janah has regularly exhibited -- his Bengal famine pictures were hung in the museum in Calcutta in 1946 or '47, and he has always had a preference for large 20 x 24 inch prints, which he printed himself or had printed under his supervision.

Living in Delhi in the sixties, Janah invested in a huge exhibition of very large prints of his work hung in the Rabindra Bhavan.  In this endeavour, too, he embodies the problems any number of photographers have faced in this country.  The exhibition was a huge financial loss, and it was sent to a number of Eastern European countries as a cultural exchange event.  On its return to India, it was seized by the Indian customs on some duty technicality.  By the time Janah managed to get it released, the entire set had rotted in the rain as the carton had been left in the open for months.  Later, when moving to London where his doctor wife had a new job, he ran into trouble with the Indian customs again over the bare-breasted women in his tribal photographs.  In fact his tribal pictures have consistently invited a typical censure from the Victorian prudery we adopted with even more enthusiasm than the British, who bequeathed it to to us.  Similarly, the books on Shanta Rao and the tribals were published years after they were conceived and completed because of various problems with the publishers.  Obviously not having a business sense, he has understandably developed a bitterness to those aspects of dealing with the real world.

In London, Janah has continued shooting in colour, though his failing eyesight has hampered both this and the printing of his earlier work.

Most of his work has not been seen by the younger generation of photographers in India, simply because it is not accessible.  Photography in India has still not developed a serious critical tradition and the huge body of work by Sunil Janah is literally a treasure trove waiting to see the full light of day.  While the art world here is still involved in petty questions of whether photography is an art or not, Janah is a figure who had resolved these issues even as he started out, bringing a clear intellectual vision to his work.  He had also realized the breadth of photography -- and to see all his work as a unified whole would be a revelation of an artist who was actively engaged with the historic moment -- and who represents that moment of the discovery and imaginative awakening of the arts, politics and society of a new India.

-- Ram Rahman

Seminar, March 1995
© Seminar and Ram Rahman

Other Reviews Sunil Janah's
Home Page
NY '98 Exhibition
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Other Reviews Sunil Janah's
Home Page
NY '98 Exhibition
Home Page