Photographing India, 1942-1978"
Gallery at 678, through Sept 15 **
Sunil Janah is to India what Henri Cartier-Bresson was to France and what Margaret Bourke-White was to America: a daring visionary who straddles photojournalism and fine art by always being in the right place at the right time. Although he is well known in India, this is Janah's first US show; as conceived and curated by the Delhi-based photographer and political activist Ram Rahman, it serves him well.
Born in 1918, Janah lived most of his life in Calcutta, though he travelled extensively throughout India (he now lives in London). He first picked up a camera as a correspondent for the Communist Party Journal People's War' , covering the Bengal Famine of 1943-44. Those pictures catapulted him into fame, and they begin this chronological survey.
The show's first half focuses on the 40's - a turbulent time that included the rise of India's Nationalist movement and the traumatic partition of the subcontinent into Hindu and Muslim states. Curator Rahman provides captions explaining the events of this period, but even if you know nothing about India's past, the sheer power and diversity of Janah's images cannot help but enthrall. They include decisive meetings of influential leaders and popular uprisings as well as scenes of human suffering and carnage, many of which were censored at the time by British authorities. There are also large portraits of the personalities who changed history.
The second part of the show, covering the period between the 50's and 70's, is more sedate. Janah turned his camera on India's burgeoning industries and its disappearing tribal peoples. He also concentrated on the connections between India's classical dance and its sacred architecture. These photos, cut loose from the larger-than-life drama of the earlier work, allow us to appreciate more readily Janah's technical virtuosity.
Rahman eschews concision for an inclusive plethora of images, but the somewhat unwieldy result gives us the measure of Janah; it also makes the show truer, perhaps, to India's own polymorphous nature.
- Peter Nagy