Ram Rahman revisits the work of the legendary photographer Sunil Janah in a talk.
“Sunil Janah’s trajectory is actually that of two decades of India. He documented the last decade of the freedom struggle and the first decade of the Nehruvian era,” says a visibly excited Ram Rahman as he shows Janah’s images on his computer at his apartment in New Delhi’s Sham Nath Marg. The broad smile continues to grace the lensman’s face as he pulls out books — like “The Second Creature” designed by Satyajit Ray — now rare and old — which feature his senior’s work or are based on him.
Being from the same profession, endorsing a similar school of thought, both ideologically and professionally, Rahman knows the value of such a vast body of fine work and why it should be seen and talked about. The slice of history captured by Janah, India’s most famous photographer in the ’40s, is extraordinary. “India has never seen this work in totality and some of them havenever been seen. The younger generation of photographers hardly knows him,” says Rahman who is delivering an illustrated lecture on the legend, “India in the 1940s and 50s: Sunil Janah’s Photographs”, at Teen Murti this coming Saturday.
The guests would be given an insight into his work with the help of 500 images of Janah — standalone pictures and also his work published elsewhere. The lecture is based on the mammoth retrospective put together by Rahman in New York in 1998.
“Such an exhibition is not possible here because all the originals are with Janah who lives in California. He has become reclusive, eccentric and suspicious of people misusing his pictures which actually happened a lot. The permission to first digitise the images and then show them was given to me because of the relationship he had with my grandmother Ragini. He had done her portfolios.,” he says.
The talk would trace the journey of Assam-born Janah who became a photographer by accident. A member of the Communist Party-led Students Federation of India, he was called by P.C. Joshi to accompany him to the famine-stricken Bengal in 1943. The stark images such as heaps of skeletons or a dog devouring human flesh marked Janah’s arrival on the scene. There onwards, he not only became the official photographer of the Communist Party, covering its meetings, worker and peasant demonstrations, but also shot the freedom struggle, its leaders and the Partition.
The intimate close-ups of Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah testify to the access he had in this arena. “He is not just a photographer. He was a student activist. He discussed politics and argued issues with these leaders. And though he was a Communist Party member, other parties regularly called him to photograph their sessions like the Haripura Congress session in 1938,” says Rahman. The pages reserved in the party journal for his pictures alongside the drawings of famous artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya would also be shown to hark back to that era.
The images that the famous Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured of remote corners of South India accompanied by Janah, who was shooting for his own party, will also be featured. The photos of tribals of India, especially women, remain among his most memorable and splendid works. Rahman says, “When I first told Habib (late theatre artiste Habib Tanvir) about the exhibition of his photographs, he got hysterical and revealed that it was Janah’s work on the tribals that inspired him to work with Chhattisgarhi artists.”