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Updated: July 5, 2012 11:20 IST

Tribute to an iconic lensman

Madhur Tankha
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Sunil Janah
Sunil Janah

Photographer Ram Rahman to deliver lecture on Sunil Janah

Iconic photographer Sunil Janah, whose coverage of the apocalyptic Bengal Famine revealed the death and destruction caused to the local population, will be remembered through words and pictures at a week-long exhibition at Ojas Art near Qutub Minar here beginning this Sunday.

Janah, who passed away at his home in Berkeley, California, on June 21 this year, visually documented the plight of the common man when the country was passing through its most turbulent phase.

Tragically, Janah became a recluse after his epoch-making black-and-white pictures were published in newspapers and magazines without his consent. He was exasperated with some people who published his well documented work without paying him or giving him credit.

Yet there was one person of his own tribe that Janah was close to and this association was due to his friendship with the latter’s family. That person happened to be Ram Rahman, an eminent photographer, who will now deliver a lecture at the gallery on July 8.

“My relationship with Janah goes a long way. He knew my mother and grandmother, who were both dancers in Calcutta in 1940s. I grew up with his pictures all over the house. I did one big exhibition of his work in New York in 1998 which received a phenomenal response. This show of Janah’s work formed the basis of my lectures during the past few years. Three years ago, I delivered a long lecture on him at Teen Murti House. It was a three-hour lecture because I showed 500 images of his work,” recalls Rahman.

Explaining why the late photographer was not willing to open up with those interested in writing books on him or mounting an exhibition of his work, Rahman says the former was infuriated with people who were using his work without his consent. “So he was suspicious of those showing interest in his work. He had become suspicious of people evincing interest in his work. His blood pressure would shoot up with the mere mention of Mulk Raj Anand’s name. The writer had used his pictures in Marg (art magazine).”

Interestingly, Janah was studying English literature in Calcutta when CPI leader P. C. Joshi convinced him to discontinue his studies and travel with him to cover the Bengal famine. “Joshi argued what was the point of studying for a degree when we were fighting the British. He took him to Midnapore in 1943 where his pictures revealed for the first time the Bengal famine to the rest of the country. Joshi had the knack of picking up actors and artistes who became members of his party.”

At a personal level, Janah had the fortune of sharing a warm relationship with stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and E.M.S. Namboodiripad. National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah once invited him to Kashmir. This rapport with the who’s who of the political spectrum made him a favourite of political parties who beseeched him to cover their meetings.

Though he was a member of the Communist Party of India, his personal equation with the tallest of leaders from across the political spectrum stood him in good stead.

Janah was the most sought after photographer for political parties because he was sophisticated, affable and knew his job. “In those days, there was a free give-and-take between politicians and photographers. And not the divide we see these days. He was not just close to Communist leaders like E.M.S. Namboodiripad and P. C. Joshi but also close to Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah and M. A. Jinnah,” says Rahman.

The upcoming exhibition, being organised by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, will run up to July 15.

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