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Root Cellar

From Malabar to the Northeast, Sunil Janah’s vintage prints document the India of the ‘40s.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: April 24, 2014 12:27:56 am

When American photographer Margaret Bourke-White charted a journey from the US to India in 1945, she sought the company of a particular photographer — Sunil Janah. Perhaps aware of his work, through the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, she called on the then 26-year-old to accompany her to south India. Introduced at the Communist Party of India (CPI) office in Mumbai, the duo would spend months documenting the famine in Andhra Pradesh and Mysore. Their frames would bring the miseries of the region before the nation.

While Janah recalled the notes and technical expertise the two shared, he chuckled at how Bourke-White’s LIFE magazine budget allowed for first class tickets in the train and hiring a cab in the affected areas, which would otherwise have been unaffordable. “He had a great sense of humour and a sharp political mind,” says photographer Ram Rahman, who knew Janah closely. He says, “His work was very personal. In each picture, there was a connection between the subject and the photographer.”

Rahman has curated an exhibition that brings together over 100 vintage prints of Janah. Selected from the private collection of Vijay Aggarwal, who acquired it from an American gallerist, these span 1940-60. “This exhibition is important because Janah’s vintage prints have not been seen in India since his exhibition in 1965,” says Rahman. In the last few years before his death at 94, in Berkeley in 2012, Janah had turned a recluse. “There are only a handful of vintage prints by Janah in private hands as he almost never sold any prints,” he says.

While the collection on display at Swaraj Art Archive does not have Janah’s political photos (of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru among others), it does represent his larger oeuvre — from frames of peasants and tribal communities to his industrial photographs from the 1950s. There is the photograph of a bare-breasted peasant sowing in Malabar, which appeared on the cover of People’s War in 1943; a group of bare-breasted women work on a collective farm; and another has a young girl in Malappuram posing for Janah.

In Kashmir, on the invitation of Sheikh Abdullah to photograph the National Conference meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1945, Janah also panned his camera on the people working in the Valley. “I remember many sunflowers and quickly fading evening light on the harvest fields,” said Janah. These words appeared in The Second Creature, which was published in Calcutta in 1948, designed by Satyajit Ray. “I happened to have a copy,” says Rahman.

And even though Janah’s association with the CPI ended in the 1950s, he continued to photograph the interiors of India. The exhibition has numerous prints from his trips to the Northeast in the 50s — from a masked man to women dancing. He photographed Rahman’s grandmother Ragini Devi dancing on stage in 1949. Commercial work led him to document industrial activity in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, from its new steel plants to coal mines, car factories and jute mills. “These prints have not been retouched or restored in any manner. They give viewers a unique chance to see the work of a major photographer in the way he intended it to be seen,” says Rahman.

The exhibition at Swaraj Art Archive, D-85, Sector 2, Noida is on till May 1. Contact: 0120-4217444

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