NOT EVERYONE ACQUIRES INSTANT FAME with photographs at the age of 27. Was Sunil Janah merely lucky? He was certainly in the right place at the right time, but there was more than luck to it. The quality of his photographs was good, and fame undoubtedly looked kinder on him because of the subject of those photographs - the Bengal Famine.
Famines on that scale don't happen everyday, thank goodness. Moreover, this was one of the first large-scale famines in the world which resulted not from floods, nor drought, not from pestilence or plant disease, but from the diversion of the country's otherwise adequate food resources to the purposes of war.
Granted that the situation was extreme, granted that the nationalist mood of the time was pleased to find a stick - however indirect - with which to beat the British, why was it the photographs attracted the attention they did ?
To understand that, we have to go back to the 1940's. At that time, photographs tended ( certainly in the India of the Raj ) to be about politicians and administrators, the rich and the famous. Focussing on ordinary people was extraordinary. It reflected a different attittude of mind, a different orientation of heart, a certain unconventionality, a courageousness of spirit.
Born in India in 1918, Janah found his way into photography by a series of accidents. He had come under the influence of an uncle who was a professional photographer and used to photograph the family every time he came around. It seems to have instilled in Janah the idea that photography is a family medium, because there is certainly that feel about much of his work. What comes across most strongly, even in the representations of famine, is a sense of humanity.
In one of the photogaphs, an unbelievably long queue is suggested by the crowds that are stretching beyond the frame - but the heart of the photograph is the Hindus, Muslims, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and others, who stand, quite bored, impervious even to each other. To understand the photograph, you have to know that Indians are irrepressibly social. A queue in India is normally alive with conversation, humour and movement. Here the deprivation of food, the enormous amount of time the people have been waiting, is suggested by the absence of the energy that normally characterises India.
Of course, not all of Janah's photographs require the viewer to have that degree of knowledge about India. Almost all of them - even those concerned with famine such as the one I have just described - operate in terms of a photographic language that is not context bound. This is partly due to Janah's attitude towards photography as an esthetic medium, an attitude which developed when his real apprenticeship in photography began, while working as a supervisor of photographic stores during the second World War. An Englishman by the name of Wender was his manager, and introduced him to the fascinating technical possibilities of the medium. Janah recalls being struck by how accurate, solid and three-dimensional were the effects that could be obtained.
Like most people when they first venture out with a camera, Janah's initial interests were undoubtedly pictorial. During his student days, photography had remained a hobby, playing second fiddle to his literary interests - he had always wanted to be a teacher or a journalist. But, after the success of his first photographs, it was writing that took second place. He had a growing awareness of the power and significance of visual media, and realized that photographs could say and mean more than the written word in a partly illiterate and completely multilingual country. As a writer, he had only English and Bengali at his command: the photograph seemed to offer a universal power of communication.
This led him to his second phase as a photographer, in which he turned increasingly to the documentary mode. He belongs to that generation of people who - though later disillusioned - thought of communism as a natural extension of liberal, humanist values. He joined the party and became secretary [web-note: no - he did not] to P.C. Joshi, who was then party leader. He recalls admiring the work he found in magazines such as LIFE and PICTURE POST, but differed from them in that he regarded photography as a social instrument as well as a vehicle for political education. He felt that Indians, especially, needed to know one another, to discover what the other Indian communities were like, what they did, how they lived, and what their customs and traditions were.
The power of photography to open up India to Indians is reflected in his particular interest in the country's tribal people. During the course of his freelance work in the 1950's, he used his commissions to subsidise his work with the tribals. In fact, Janah's interest in tribal people produced some of his finest photographs - there is one of some tribals dancing, in the Indian state of Orissa, which sums up the warmth with which he was received and the affection he felt. He and his wife, who now works as a doctor in London, refer in conversation to particular tribes they love as they sift through the many photographs stored in huge cardboard boxes in the front room of their Wimbledon house. There is a strong sense of nostalgia as they acknowledge how times have changed: as roads and railways penetrate ever deeper into the Indian heartlands, the need for for industrial labour has drawn many tribal people out of their traditions, so that Janah's photographs have a growing historical-anthropological significance. They represent perhaps the only surviving documentation of an aspect of Indian culture which precious few Indians, let alone non-Indians, have any knowledge about.
Much of Janah's other photographic work has a wider historical importance, of course - particularly his documentation of India's struggle for independence in the 1940's. Several memorable images spring to mind: one of a woman terrorist who had, at the age of 15, been sentenced for life, taken on her release, after 14 years in prison; Gandhi and Jinnah, discussing the future of India; Gandhi in Calcutta, trying to pacify warring Muslims and Hindus; the post-partition riots of 1946-7; and many others.
Janah's desire to make people think about social realities needs to be distinguished from orthodox Marxist views about art, and reflects the complex cultural miscegenation which his work embodies. On the one hand, he values the importance of photography as a representation of reality, and the power of that reality to affect social and political change. But, at the same time, he recognises how constructed that reality is: in fact, it is exactly that quality of control he glories in. He wanted "to relay my own feelings about the world I was living in". He wanted not only to influence people into political awareness, from a Left political perspective, but also to influence them because they were seeing the world in a personalised way.
Janah gives an example, which, in a post-feminist age, might be questioned for other reasons, of what he means, when he recalls that the convention, among women in particular parts of rural India, used to be to go about their daily life topless. He recalls how a certain prudishness crept into 'progressive' circles about this practice, a combination of the influence of Islam and Victorian Colonialists. Bare breasts had become associated with backwardness, and other negative concepts about tribal people. Janah rejected those associations, and tried, through his images, to show a different reality. "Please see it with me", he says as he uncovers a box full of striking portraits of tribal men and women. Through his eyes, they seem not merely "less jungly", but "more civilized, and glorious, than us".
Perhaps unconciously, Janah has inherited an attitude to tribal people which has its roots partly in primitivist eighteenth century European concepts of the noble savage. These ideas had found their way into India, and, more specifically, Bengal, where Janah was born and educated, via British orientalists in India. Bengali intellectuals were heavily influenced by British ideas during the nineteenth century, although, in Janah's case, his most immediate influence was that of Rabindranath Tagore, the multifaceted painter, poet, musician, and cultural revitaliser.
In the beauty of the common people, Janah found a spiritual quality, which photography was particularly suited to. "The graceful women who inspire men to live, the toil of ordinary villagers which is important to us all - all of this could, in some way, be said through photographs."
As a 'political' photographer, Janah's main achievement was to ensure that, for the first time, the image of the ordinary Indian could be seen nationwide: his photographs appeared regularly in the Party journal called THE PEOPLE'S WAR. His varied contributions to the paper would be most accurately described as art editor, although no such post existed at the time. The Party paid everyone an equally small salary, and everyone contributed as they could. His work included not only taking photographs and art editing the journal, but also work at Party conferences showing images from different parts of the country. There were some fascinating times, including a month spent on the road with LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who had come to India on an assignment and been told that Janah was one of the few people who could help her find her way in the more remote parts of the country - an experience she recounts in her book HALFWAY TO FREEDOM.
Janah is no longer such an ardent communist. He was expelled from the Party along with P.C. Joshi, and he is more aware, he says, of Communism's feet of clay. The bureaucratisation and ascription of power to party bosses which have marked Socialist societies until recently depresses him. In any case, he is no longer sure that the idolising of personalities offers a way forward for human beings.
With his expulsion from the Party, Janah moved into the third phase of his development. The freelance side of his work had to expand, and he has remained freelance since. He has undertaken assignments for the United Nations, and been placed on their panel of international photographers. After his first U.N. assignments - Burma to show how the U.N. was contributing to the development of rice, and Malaya to highlight U.N. aid to rubber plantations - he was asked to do an assignment in the U.S., which he couldn't take up because of an adverse report from the Indian police on his visa application. Fortunately, Paris and Geneva were not so rabidly opposed to an ex-communist, and he was able, during the late 50's, to take assignments there.
He settled in Britain eight years ago for family reasons, and is now more of a recluse due to ill-health - although a project to bring some of Tagore's work for exhibition in London and Oxford took him scurrying happily back to India recently. His shyly retiring nature means that he is, unfortunately, not yet well enough known in Britain to be asked to do as many assignments as he could, although he still spends lots of time in the darkroom.
Janah's favorite photographs remain deceptively simple: peasants toil in Bengal, small under a Hardyesque sky; two boys navigate a boat; an ox ploughs a field in Bengal; women pick leaves in a tea plantation; sweat gleams on the columns of muscles of boatmen on the Ganges. In each of the photographs - whether portraits, groups, people working, playing, relaxing, dancing - there is dignity, joy and the rugged strength of ordinariness. Janah's work is a tribute to people and places he has beheld with love.
(for web readers unfamiliar with India, and for factual clarification)
purposes of war
The reference is to the massive procurement, diversion, and stockpiling, by the British rulers of India, of food-grains for the troops during the second World War, especially for the troops massing to meet the Japanese threat from the east. This, greatly aggravated by hoarding, black-marketeering, and panic, produced an artificial shortage of food, leading to much suffering, and many deaths from famine, most notably in the eastern state of Bengal. That year, there had been, in fact, bumper grain harvests in India and other parts of the world. Grain was dumped into the ocean, it was reported, to protect prices for farmers elsewhere. [BACK]
India of the Raj
The reference here is to the "British Raj", or British reign over India. The term could also refer to the personification of British government, either as an abstraction, or as embodied in the actual British monarch or governor. This is because both the Sanskrit words "raajya" (kingdom) and "raaja" (king) could, in North India, be shortened to "raaj". ("raajya" is probably cognate to "reign", and to German "Reich", while the form "raaja" corresponds to French "roi", Latin "regis", and Greek "rex".) [BACK]
uncle who was a professional photographer...
The "uncle" referred to here is actually the photographer Sambhu Saha, a family friend and early professional mentor. It may be worth noting here that, at the time of Janah's entry into photography, he and other photographers faced serious social prejudice from the Indian middle class of the time, many of whose members had no regard for the dignity of labour. They regarded photography as a lowly menial profession, not fit for people of their class, and treated photographers accordingly. [BACK]
India, after independence, recognised fourteen official languages, written in a multitude of scripts, many with common ancient origins, but divergent over time. Most of these languages have strong literary traditions. There are also dozens of other languages, with smaller populations, ranging from millions to hundreds, many without scripts until recently. [BACK]
he became secretary [no - he did not] to P.C. Joshi ..
Janah did not become secretary to P.C. Joshi. Guptara may have misunderstood Janah's mention of Joshi being the Party Secretary at the time. [BACK]
Indians especially needed to know...
The size and diversity of the subcontinent, the lack (at the time) of widespread literacy and transportation, and the static, settled character of most rural Indian communities meant that many Indians knew very little about people outside their immediate region, or even outside their particular community. One of the tasks taken on by the cultural wing of Joshi's party was that of touring the country, learning the local folk cultures, and acquainting people with the cultures of other communities and regions, through crafts, literature, song, dance, art, photographs and reportage. [BACK]
Just as the influx of Europeans displaced the earlier peoples of the Americas, so did the influx of the "Aryans", and others, displace the earlier peoples of the Indian subcontinent. One major difference is that the former happened within the past few hundred years, whereas the latter took place many thousands of years ago. Also, in the subcontinent, the local peoples were probably never exterminated to the extent that they were, for instance, in the United States. Many peoples were assimilated into the mainstream Indian agricultural communities, sometimes as subcastes, sometimes as "untouchables". Others survived, as independent tribal communities, in forested, desert or mountainous areas, often as transient farmers or hunter-gatherers. Their degree of isolation from the Indian mainstream varied greatly from region to region, and from tribe to tribe. [BACK]
Kalpana Datta, a defendant in the Chittagong Armory Raid case, escaped execution, perhaps due to her gender and young age. Others were hanged. She spent fourteen years in prison, in the remote Andaman islands. She later married P.C. Joshi, who headed the Communist Party of India. P.C. Joshi, a humanist who was later shoved aside by the CPI leadership, spent his later years, working, among other things, on a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. [BACK]
Gandhi and Jinnah
Jinnah was the moving force behind the subsequent creation of Pakistan, as an Islamic state carved out of the Muslim-majority parts of British India. Gandhi, who had envisioned an independent India that would embrace all her communities and regions, had opposed this vehemently from the start, but eventually gave in to Jinnah's demands. The impatience of the Indian Congress Party leaders may have played a part in this. The partition of India led to millions displaced and horrendous carnage. Imagine the recent horrors in the former Yugoslavia, less organised, but magnified a thousandfold. [BACK]
It should be noted that bare breasts were the norm, not only among many tribal women, but also among women of mainstream communities in certain parts of India. [BACK]
Bengal, where he was born..
Janah was, in fact, born in the nearby state of Assam, in the small town of Dibrugarh. His parents were natives of Bengal, and, while still an infant, he was brought back to that state. So he did grow up in Bengal. [BACK]
THE PEOPLE'S WAR
The CPI had, at the time, taken the unpopular stand of support for the war against the Axis powers, which meant supporting India's colonial ruler (Britain) in its war effort. The name of the publication was later changed to PEOPLE'S AGE. [BACK]
...eight years ago
Janah moved to the U.K. in 1979, following his wife and children to the west. (This article appeared in TEN-8 in 1987.) [BACK]