When 16 year old Jitendra Arya’s father put him on a boat to London in 1948, neither of them had a plan in place. The teenager had been taking photos since he was 10-years-old, when he got hold of a Brownie box camera. In fact, a picture he took of the Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta was published when he was 15. As he explored the medium, Arya grew convinced that his life’s work lay in photography. The trouble was the conservatism of the Indian community in Kenya, where he grew up, which would surely frown upon a boy following his ambition rather than his father’s footsteps into the family business. “But, his father told him, ‘A man must follow his inclination’,” says Kavi, Arya’s son, “That’s something dad remembered all his life.”
Arya made a name for himself as one of the leading portrait photographers of the time and in a career that took him from London to India, photographed some of the most well-known people in the world, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Sir Bertrand Russell, Lord and Lady Mountbatten and Maharani Gayatri Devi. Many of these portraits are currently on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, as part of the exhibition, “Light Works”. This is the first ever large scale retrospective dedicated to the late Arya, who helped shape the course of photography in India, pioneering new portraiture styles as well as elevating magazine photography to an art form.
In London, the young Arya had worked as a dark room assistant for many months, before eventually working with the well-known Hungarian photojournalist, Michael Peto. It was while accompanying Peto during the making of a documentary on Jawaharlal Nehru, that Arya shot some candid images of India’s first Prime Minister playing with his grandchildren. These were published on the front page of The Sunday Times and shot Arya to instant fame. However, Arya came to India for good in 1961 when his wife Chhaya was cast by Guru Dutt as Chhoti Bahu in Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam.
The role eventually went to Meena Kumari, of course, but Arya decided to stay back with his family and took up a job as special photographer with The Times of India. During the next two decades, he would would redefine glamour photography in the country. He wasn’t interested in shooting just film personalities either. “He loved music and art, and developed a relationship with many of the leading singers, musicians and artists of the day, and our house became a hub of sorts. He photographed most of them, such as MF Husain and Pt Ravi Shankar,” says Chhaya.
“We had a small exhibition of his vintage prints at the Piramal Art Gallery in 1991, but we never managed to have a properly curated show during his lifetime,” says Kavi, “Dad wasn’t really interested, although mum had been telling him for a long time that he should start a school or an institute to push forward his legacy. But organising exhibitions or setting up institutes requires money and he wasn’t interested in going around looking for sponsorship. He found it more meaningful to spend time with family,” says Kavi.
After Arya passed away in 2011, however, Chhaya convinced her sons that an exhibition of their father’s works was necessary to highlight the pioneering work that he had done. The family approached Sabina Gadihoke, who had previously curated the Homai Vyarawalla show at the NGMA and who knew the Arya family from previous meetings during her research into the history of photography in post-Independence India.
In the two years that they prepared for the exhibition, his family dug through the tens of thousands of photos that Arya took over the course of his career. “The scope of his work was huge and what you see in the exhibition, which is portraits, is only a fraction of what we actually have. Other exhibitions might come up with the rest of the work, but through ‘Light Works’, we’re reviving interest in his work and highlighting the incredible work he did of capturing the people who defined India in the post-Independence years,” he says. “Light Works” is on view at the NGMA, Mumbai till October 8