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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Reluctant Chronicler

It’s the long-awaited (now posthumous) edition of the work of Sunil Janah,a historically important photographer remembered most for his images

Written by Sanjeev Saith | Published: April 20, 2013 1:01:10 am

Book: Photographing India

Author: Sunil Janah

Publisher: OUP

Price: Rs 3,995

Pages: 300

It’s the long-awaited (now posthumous) edition of the work of Sunil Janah,a historically important photographer remembered most for his images in pre-Independence Bengal,and it makes me wince.

The publisher has a cruel eye. The book is richly priced and poorly printed,with pictures cropped and boxed six to a spread,captions and dates that don’t always ring true,there’s even a photograph that’s printed twice,the second time as a mirror image of itself. The visual idiom is lost in the hurried herding,and it’s the photographer’s own narrative that illuminates him. Sadly,this compelled familiarity with the man behind the camera through his literary prose only adds to my disillusionment.

Sunil Janah was a student of English Literature at Calcutta University when he was drawn to the Communist Party of India. The year was 1943,and Bengal was in the grip of a “man-made” famine that would go on to take two million lives. “Socialism,promising to end the exploitation of people,seemed the only worthwhile objective,” he says. “I thought I could write,and that would be useful to the Party”.

But Janah was also a keen amateur photographer,with a twin-lens Rolleiflex always slung over his shoulder,someone who entered (and won) photo-contests in the Illustrated Weekly of India. When P.C. Joshi,general secretary of the CPI,came from Bombay to observe the famine for the Party’s journal,Janah was summoned to accompany him,not for the usefulness of his pen,but that of his camera. His pictures,published along with Joshi’s impassioned reportage in People’s War,sealed his destiny as the CPI’s image-maker. “I do not relish,to this day,the fact that I earned my early fame from the grim business of photographing the starving,the dying,and the dead…”

Janah’s assigned life now coincided with the freedom movement and the bloody carving of nations. As the Party’s photographer he had access to politicians; as aide to foreign correspondents he bore witness to the aftermath of communal violence and mass migrations. But was he ever a photojournalist at heart? Or was he a reluctant chronicler of events,even trying to dissuade Life magazine’s Margaret Bourke-White from venturing to shoot near the Nakhoda Masjid during the Calcutta killings of 1946 — “two of us lying dead together will not make it any better”,he had said. While he was at ease with those in power — “my face had become familiar to the national leaders” — one senses his discomfort when his camera had to face the misery of the led,“represented in the world’s newspapers as sad specimens of humanity… It was disturbing that my photographs would only serve to reinforce this image. I felt that I owed it to our people to photograph their vigour,charm,and liveliness”. The pictorialist in him still sought the happy picture despite five years of People’s War. Did he miss his Illustrated Weekly?

Janah parted ways with the Party after India gained independence. “I felt I could never be a political activist again.” Instead,he seems to have enlisted with the Nehruvian national project,doing commissioned work for museums,companies and tourism departments to photograph the temples of India,old and new — the sites of archeology and architecture,the dams,mines,and factories,and,of course,his charming lively people — farmers,tribals,dancers,poets,musicians,scientists,writers. A sort of ensemble of Republic Day floats. “And then there were all the beautiful women,some in the nude,whom I had photographed so lovingly”. He accepted the Padma Shri in 1973.

He travelled abroad on UN assignments,as a state guest,to exhibit or to judge,or to cure his back pain. Colombo Rangoon Geneva Paris Tashkent Bukhara Samarkand Berlin Warsaw London Prague Bratislava Bucharest Sofia Athens Rome Milan Florence Venice Salzburg Bruges Havana Houston New York San Francisco. And Moscow — “where the dream had become a living reality… I walked the streets,thinking of Lenin and the October revolution,looking with wide-eyed wonder at the Kremlin… watching a ballet at the Bolshoi… aided by generous portions of vodka,champagne and caviar…” He left India for good in 1980,living in the UK till 2001,and then in the USA till his death.

Shortly before he passed away in 2012,he was awarded the Padma Shri again. When the redundancy was made apparent,they upgraded him to Bhushan. Oxford University Press has now honoured him with this publication.

Sanjeev Saith is a photographer and photo-editor,based in Delhi

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