A nation, in images

Documenting a nation: Kulwant Roy's work follows the process of nation-building.  

Kulwant Roy is one of the unsung heroes of photo-journalism. His work through the last phase of the Freedom Struggle – 1938-47 – and, after the departure of the British, the process of nation building over the next 20 years, is of particular value.

His surrogate nephew rescued his work from oblivion long after his death in 1984 and placed it where it belonged – in the public domain. It was only then that students of history and photography woke up to the importance of his work, indeed his seminal contribution to Indian photo-journalism.

Artistic talents

He did not just photograph Indian politicians in the Freedom Struggle, most famously Mahatma Gandhi, going about their business exhorting the public to be a part of the ongoing non-violent fight against the British, but also the more close knit moments of party discussions with leaders and workers, as a record for the newspapers, which the pictures were, but invested them with a dignity, even soul, by the dint of his artistic talent.

He would have been most amused to have been called a possessor of artistic talent. In his time, and indeed ours, photojournalists were usually concerned with competence and speed of execution. A news photographer was expected to size up a situation quickly in terms of lighting and composition for maximum visual impact rather than a mysterious entity called ‘art'!

Kulwant Roy, did not take news pictures all the time, and, like some of his colleagues, ‘cut loose' every now and then. There is a picture taken of a lone figure in black, in long shot, surrounded by snow in Kashmir, the impact of which is stunning. It would be difficult to imagine that this picture was taken by the same man who took such incisive photographs of the Freedom Movement and of social and political events, later. Only S. Paul, from a generation and half later, showed such an artistic inclination.

Historian Indivar Kamtekar has collaborated on the text with photographer Aditya Arya who has obviously selected the pictures. This quote seems to come from Kamtekar: “Kulwant Roy's photographs never make us feel that history is headed in the wrong direction. On the contrary, they declare that the world was progressing. In so doing, they embody the optimism of the first decades of independent India. Their assumptions are those of their times: that is what makes them so valuable”(p.11).

The problem with such observations is that they are based on conjectures quite independent of the source material that may have prompted them. It is true that the interpretation of a photograph is subjective and each viewer may find in it what he or she may want to consciously or otherwise. Reading meanings of historical significance into Kulwant Roy's photographs by Kamtekar is at best a perilous exercise. As an old amateur photographer and a passionate lover of the medium, one can say with some conviction, that the impact of a photograph depends on its execution, which in turn is an amalgam of technique and aesthetics. What Kulwant Roy was probably doing was to get the best possible picture, using the most economical means, to go with the story being filed by the reporter assigned for the job.

Kulwant Roy was covering events of historical significance, but using the cumbersome, single-shot sheet-film Speed Graphic camera with a negative size of four inches by five inches, and a Flash Gun using bulbs, when the occasion demanded it, could not have left him with much time for intellectual or philosophical reflection while taking a picture! Of course one can argue that the real significance of a photo with a political or social import can only be felt in retrospect. There is, however, one major flaw in the argument, that the interpretation will be subjective, reflecting the bias of the interpreter, often misleadingly so.

The photograph of two little boys with hopeful, expectant eyes perched on a stationary motorcycle with a pretty austere Delhi landscape in the background, taken in the 1950s, does yield tempting, multiple interpretations, each more significant than the other! Kulwant Roy was probably taking what he thought was a nice picture.


To bore the lay reader a bit, Roy, from the late 1940s onwards took to using twin-lens cameras like the Rollieflex and then later in the late 1950s, the Japanese Mamiya, both had 12 shots to offer, and a negative size 2-1\4 inches by 2-1\4 inches and were portable to boot. In addition he also switched to the German 35 mm Rangefinder, Contax which offered amazing mobility. The choice of subject, and execution of his pictures, therefore changed: he was unfettered.

This volume consists exclusively of black and white pictures: He did handle colour with a certain aplomb in later life. He died unsung, despite having travelled widely in Europe, the United States and in Asia, particularly, Japan. There were hardly any Indian photographers who were so widely travelled. He mailed his undeveloped films, and almost all of them were lost in transit. He was a broken man. Aditya Arya deserves the gratitude of the nation for bringing forward the work of Kulwant Roy, a deeply sensitive and perceptive photographer.

History In The Making: The Visual Archives Of Kulwant Roy , Aditya Arya, Collins (an imprint of HarperCollins), price not stated.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 12:07:46 PM |

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