PHOTOGRAPHY An exhibition rediscovering exemplary photojournalist Kulwant Roy through his splendid work. SHAILAJA TRIPATHI

Kulwant Roy never got his due. The photojournalist and his significant work around India’s freedom movement aren’t clearly etched in the memory of this nation today. Keeping that in consideration, the single largest show of the photographer, ‘Visual archives of Kulwant Roy’, at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi can be viewed as an attempt to reclaim, rediscover and refresh Roy’s seminal work in our minds.

The show has been curated by Aditya Arya, a well-known photographer and photo-conservationist himself, who called him mama ji . “We should be looking into visual histories. They are subaltern histories. You are an interpreter and it is up to you how you interpret those. Who are historians? Somebody is a Marxist, someone is a Leftist, but photographers aren’t Leftists or Marxists. It is just the camera,” says Aditya walking us through the gallery on the day of inauguration.

Aditya’s great grand uncle taught photography to Roy, and that’s how he got close to the family. And Roy got closer to Aditya because the latter took up photography. “I worked with him in his dark room in the 1970s. It was my last year in school and I would wash his prints. He used to pay me Rs.20 a day,” recalls Aditya, to whom he left his invaluable treasure of prints and negatives. Roy died of cancer. “He had no money. Photography never gave him money. How he would have managed if he lived… And that’s why he didn’t want me to pursue photography.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that Aditya opened these boxes and realised what a significant archive it was, for it contained milestone moments of India’s history. It was then that he stumbled across the iconic image of Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah arguing on the veranda of his bungalow and found out that all this while it was incorrectly attributed to the Hulton-Getty Archive. That famous shot shares space with 300 other images displayed in the exhibition. Besides images, there are annotated envelopes, letters, old cameras and prints and negatives’ boxes.

There are quite a few broken negatives in the collection, and Aditya has restored them and made digital prints out of them. The cracks running through the pictures — like in the one with Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at a prayer meeting, or an early 1940s picture of Mahatma Gandhi pleading for alms for the Harijan Fund at New Delhi with industrialist Jamnadas Bajaj seated to the left — render them new aesthetics. The cracks can be seen as metaphors for layers of history and time.

Not one of them posed, Kulwant Roy’s images were made spontaneously, and yet they don’t lack in technical finesse. “What set him apart was that he was the only independent photographer. He established his photo agency at that time. He created his own assignments. He shot pictures and then sold them to different newspapers.”

The mammoth collection is neatly divided into different sections comprising a variety of pictures shot between the 1930s and 1960s. While a candid picture of Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru listening intently to Mahatma Gandhi, with a poster depicting shackles of oppression being broken forming the backdrop, comes across as the work of an extremely conscious mind, he captures history in the photograph featuring Sardar Patel, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Baldev Singh and others signing the Constitution of India on January 24, 1950. Aditya says that what makes this image the single most important image in the exhibition is that it is the only surviving picture of the Indian Constitution being signed.

“At a time when photography has shifted from being a big truth to a big lie, it’s important to showcase the photographs that showed things the way they happened. It’s not important if it’s a good picture. What is important is what it stands for. These people were documenting and there are statements being made in these images.”

(The exhibition ‘Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy’ is on at NGMA, Jaipur House, India Gate, the next four weeks.)

The picture of Kulwant Roy on the invite of the exhibition, informs Aditya, has been taken by Roy’s Japanese girlfriend. Aditya has been trying to trace her for some years now but hasn’t been able to make contact. The two wanted to marry.

Roy worked at the Royal Indian Air Force as a photographer and was court-martialled when he broke some rules that he found discriminating against the Indians.

Travelling across the world in 1958, he mailed all his photographs and negatives to his address in Delhi, but on his return discovered they had all been lost. He kept searching for them in the dustbins of Delhi but never found them.

Aditya plans to take the exhibition to schools and colleges.

Aditya is an advertising photographer and it was this priceless collection that led him to create India Photo Archive Foundation.

A beautiful catalogue brought out by NGMA is another highlight of the show.