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The following is a review of an exhibition, in England, in the Wolverhampton Art Gallery . It appeared in the (London) Times Higher Education Supplement, in 1987.

Some minor typographical and factual errors have been corrected. Also, a few ambiguities have been cleared up. These clarifications are enclosed in [brackets].

For those unfamiliar with India, names of people and places have been marked and explained at the end. (Web viewers can view these explanations by selecting the highlighted links.)


Liberation in Focus

Horace Lashley, Times Higher Education Supplement, 24th April, 1987.

Sunil Janah is a distinguished photo-journalist, who could well claim a place among India's distinguished historians of the 1940's. Evidence of this major contribution can be seen in an exhibition of his journalistic photographs at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, to be accompanied by a programme of talks and films about India.

The exhibition focuses on people, and on the ways in which they were caught up in the events of the period. It does so by treating the [Indian] national liberation struggle almost as an event in itself, which seems isolated from the real and bloody war that was taking place within [British India's] boundaries as well as on its borders.

The exhibition is a most profound political thesis of liberation. Janah activates the belief that photographs tell a full story, where words are sometimes at a loss.

One sees the consequence of the famine of the period, the victims of the riots, student demonstrations, workers marching in protest, women forever active and in high profile.

Despite the obvious frightfulness and highly charged nature of the situation, there is a pleasantness, a peacefulness and hopefulness, on the faces.

Janah describes himself as a young idealist of the time, whose hopes lay in the success of a socialist India. In that period he was, therefore, a member of the Communist Party of India, and served as the arts editor on the party's newspaper The People's War . For the first time, the image of the Indian was being seen, nationwide, as an integral and valued part of Indian society.

While, on the one hand, [the exhibition] is a "who's who" of the leadership of the Indian independence movement, it also provides a platform to show off a broad cross-section of the ordinary Indian people. It is no accident, then, that it is not a gallery of India's princes and Rajas and their finery, to which we have become more accustomed on these occasions.

As Janah quite clearly suggests, through his photo-thesis presentation, the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle was waged [as much] by the ordinary people - the workers, the women who tilled the fields or picked tea leaves - [as] by the politicians who gathered together the myriads of rallies and marches.

As a photo-journalist, Janah's ambition was to traverse every corner of India, from the Kush to Assam, from Tibet to Kerala - and this, he proudly indicates, he accomplished. He wanted to do this because, for him, this meant an inclusion of the ethnic minority groups of India, as well as those affected by the caste system. In the exhibition, he therefore carries [for instance] a portrait of a Muria tribal girl, in whom he captures an aesthetic naturalness that almost borders on professional modelling: her traditional costume, clad to the limits of imposed prudish modesty, but obviously common to her region and suited to her climate; her jewels bedecked with beautiful designs and worn as a work of art; and captioned by a smile, of innocence, yet provocative to the wordly.

A pinnacle of the Indian human aesthetic is attained in the dances of India, and Janah is not enough of a heretic to exclude this. He [presents this] with an exciting dance portrait of Shanta Rao, in [a classical Indian] dance.

During the period, Janah knew every leader involved in the Independence struggle. He knew them sufficiently well to capture much more of them in his photographs than just mere snapshots: he was able to capture them within a framework that gave particular meaning. Of particular significance is the photograph of a meeting between Mahatma Gandhi and [Quaid-i-Azam] Jinnah. To Janah, this is a symbol of his idealism as a young man - the Unity of India.

Janah does not confine himself to people and events, but also covers aspects of Indian sculpture, architecture and industry. These provide a meeting place between India's tradition and monuments, and her legacy [and evolution] from colonial occupation and socioeconomic domination. The Taj Mahal and Bombay's Victoria Terminus railway station, the temple sculpture of Orissa and the office blocks of Delhi, the oxen tilling the fields and the heavy industrial plant with smoke belching from its chimmney - these tell their own story of the socioeconomic change and compromise the country was experiencing.

Janah sees this exhibition as having a serious social function, since, "in spite of close links with India for more than two hundred years in the past, very few of the white British people, especially among the young, have, at present, any knowledge and understanding of the peoples of India, who are now their next door neighbours". Additionally, he sees it as an educational resource for schools and other eductional institutions.

The photographs on display are only a tiny part of an enormous archive which Sunil Janah is prepared to make available to serious students of Indian history and photo journalism. Contact can be made with him through the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. [*]

Horace Lashley


The author [was, in 1987] a senior research fellow in the department of education at the University of Warwick.
* This article appeared in 1987. Sunil Janah may currently (1998) be contacted by e-mail at SJanah@aol.com .

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Notes - (added for web viewers unfamiliar with India)

from the Kush to Assam, from Tibet to Kerala ...


a Muria tribal girl...

The Muria are a people who live in the region called "Bastar", in central India. This area is home to several unique communities who, along with other such groups scattered throughout India (especially in Bastar and in the Northeast) were called "tribals" by the British to differentiate them from peoples more assimilated into the the larger Indian regional and cultural groups. The term "Adi-vasi" (Ancient Dweller) is sometimes used, to mark their preservation of human cultures and genes inhabiting the subcontinent for the longest times.

Just as the earlier peoples of the Americas were violently displaced, over the past few hundred years, by Europeans, so also were the earlier peoples of the Indian subcontinent, several thousand years ago, by the Aryas (Aryans), and other peoples, who entered India from the northwest. However, the organized annihilation of the earlier peoples probably did not take place to the extent that it did in the Americas, especially in the United States. This may have been due to the fact that the differences in technology and culture were not as great, or that the invasions were more gradual, or to a partial assimilation, over time, of the more tolerant attitudes of many of these earlier Indians. We do not know.

We do know, however, that many of these peoples survived, some by assimilation into the rural agricultural mainstream, sometimes as subcastes, sometimes as outcastes. Others were able to carry on as independent tribal communities, mostly in the forested, hilly, arid, or isolated regions, practising settled or migrant agriculture, or hunting and gathering. The degree of isolation from the Indian mainstream varied from region to region and community to community. Trading relations almost always existed.

Industrialization, and other forces, are, however, transforming these cultures very rapidly, often traumatically.

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a meeting between Gandhi and Jinnah ...

Mohammad Ali Jinnah was the moving force behind the Indian Muslim League's demand for a separate Islamic State (Pakistan), carved out of the Muslim-majority regions of British India. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who had envisioned an independent India that embraced all its communities and regions, had opposed this from the start. Eventually, however, he agreed to it. The impatience of the Indian Congress Party leaders may have played a part in this. The subsequent partition of India resulted in the immediate displacement of tens of millions, and horrendous carnage on both sides. Imagine the recent horrors in the former Yugoslavia, less organised, but magnified a thousandfold.

Gandhi, who eschewed any position in the forming government of the secular Indian Union, was assasinated by a Hindu fanatic, who was resentful of Gandhi's inclusive attitude towards the Muslims and the "untouchables". Jinnah, who came to be known as "Quad-i-Azam" (father of the Nation) in Pakistan, was titular head of Pakistan for a brief period, cut short by his death. The migration of peoples, and the turmoil, ignited by partition, have continued, in spurts, to this day.

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temple sculpture in Orissa ...

Orissa is a state in the East of India, bordering the Bay of Bengal. Whereas many of the ancient North Indian temples were destroyed or vandalised by monotheistic invaders who were intolerant of idols, Orissa, and many regions further south, were able to preserve their temples relatively unscathed. (The monotheistic communities, and even empires, that remained in India have usually respected the temples, however.) It is a characteristic of many Indian temples that their exteriors are ornately carved, with human and celestial figures. This Hindu style appears to have been transmitted from Southern and Eastern India to as far East as Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, preceding the Buddhist transmissions to these regions.

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