Remembering Sunil Janah

Sunil Janah, one of the most important chroniclers of India’s independence movement and Partition passed away on 21st June this year. He was, not only, as he often told us, in his modest way, a photo journalist. He was an artist whose work explored a wide span of history - capturing not only key moments in the lives of leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah but also portraying the mass movements of the period and the lives and day to day struggles of the people. As he put it in an interview ‘my subject was the Indian people, my emphasis had been on the distressing conditions of their lives, their poverty and wretchedness and their repeatedly manifest revolt against it’.

Sunil’s death just a month after his wife Sobha Dutt marks the end of an era which saw the creation of a variety of progressive and left-wing cultural organisations like the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and the Progressive Writers Association of which he was one of the original members.

In London where Sunil Janah spent 23 years of years of his later life, he and Sobha will be sadly missed, not least by us in South Asia Solidarity Group. They were our dear friends who stood with us through all the struggles of the 1990s - Sunil buoying our spirits with his optimism and his mischievous humour, Sobha inviting us to their home and urging us to come whenever we wished to.

We shall always cherish those visits to their house, in the outer reaches of London when they would relax and joke and reminisce about the old days – about Sunil’s first camera, a Kodak ‘Box Brownie’ given to him by a his grandmother when he was ten years old, about his uncle who was a photographer and allowed him to use his facilities; and about the thrill of having his pictures published for the first time when he was a student at Presidency College in Calcutta in the early 1940s , and about how, again as a student, he joined the Communist Party.

When PC Joshi the party leader visited Calcutta in 1943 before starting a fact-finding tour of the countryside during the Bengal famine, he was so impressed by the young amateur photographer that he asked him to accompany him and the artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya. Sunil abandoned his studies to travel with Joshi and Chittoprasad, and eventually his photographs and Chittoprasad’s powerful linocuts provided the visual evidence for the report which was published in People’s War, the party journal. It was these remarkable photographs from Bengal and later from what is now Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (where the famine had spread) which made Sunil Janah widely known. They exposed for the first time the full horror of this man-made disaster without ever compromising the dignity of their subjects.
Sunil and Chittoprasad, who became a lifelong friend, moved to the Communist Party commune in Bombay, from where he travelled to Delhi, Srinagar, Ahmedabad and many other places taking pictures of Congress, Muslim league, and National Conference of Kashmir leaders in this crucial period of Indian history.

But Kolkata was in many ways his real base, and eventually he returned there. His studio there became a meeting place for the artists and writers of the time – the poet and writer Samar Sen, the artist Gopal Ghosh were among the many regular attendees at the addas there and were his close friends. He was also one of the founder members along with Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta and Hari Das Gupta of the Calcutta Film Club and his first book of photographs ‘The Second Creature’ (Signet Press 1949) was designed by Satyajit Ray.

In the 1950s Sunil was commissioned on a number of occasions to photograph the symbols of rapid industrialisation then taking place, highlighting the mood of optimism which characterised the period. It was also in the 50s that he travelled the country taking photographs of people living in remote areas of India, many of them belonging to Adivasi communities. Through these photographs Sunil Janah conveyed the tenacious diversity of cultures, religions and ethnic groups across the region, creating a picture of India which directly challenges the aggressive homogenized images generated by contemporary right-wing Hindu nationalist forces as well as the globalised media.

In 1965, Sunil’s father died, and the Calcutta house had to be sold, and around this time Sobha, a medical scientist and doctor, had to move to Delhi to complete her PhD. Sunil followed her. He continued travelling the country however. One section of his work consisted of photographs of archaeological remains. Among these, some of the most impressive are of temple sculptures, particularly dance poses of Hindu deities immortalised in stone. Pictures he took later of some of the great living exponents of classical Indian dances of the time, appear to reflect these earlier images.

In 1978, the Janahs moved to London but by now, although he continued taking pictures and developing them, his eyesight had become badly affected as a result of glaucoma. He and Sobha did however continue to travel to different countries where his pictures were exhibited, visiting Cuba where they met the legendary photographer Alberto Korda and Mexico in the 1990s.

Sunil and Sobha were in every sense an entity – passionate about the politics of our times, argumentative and enthusiastic.

For us the most exciting evenings were those when we looked through their treasure trove of photographs while they pointed out poignant details or explained the context of the pictures. Here we found moving portraits of individuals or small groups of people, photographed with the same sympathy and sensitivity to mood, irrespective of whether they were well-known national figures or peasant leaders in some remote district of UP or Bengal, or policemen suspiciously and fearfully eyeing crowds during the strikes of the 1940s. Here too were panoramic and breathtaking images of a people on the march Hajong peasants in North Bengal marching with a Communist flag against a vast sky in the palpable heat of the Tonk movement, which like the Tebhaga movement battled against landlords claiming two-thirds of the crop, workers demonstrations in Bombay demanding jobs, or stunned crowds milling around while a newspaper headline proclaimed starkly ‘Mahatma Shot Dead’. In these pictures it is the masses collectively that are the subject and above them more often than not is a sky intense with feeling because for Sunil nature was always integral to human existence. Through these photographs, one could trace also the series of Communist-led peasant uprisings demanding land redistribution and a change in the social order which rocked the 1940s.

Sunil and Sobha moved to Berkeley, California in 2003 to be near their son and daughter, who were based in the US, and it was in America that Sunil’s last two major exhibitions were held - in New York, in 1998, organised and curated by Ram Rahman and in San Francisco, in 2000, arranged by his daughter Monua. Both of these exhibitions drew enormous crowds, many from a new generation who had never before seen these images which bring to life the struggles of India’s people.

Sunil Janah never got the recognition he deserved from the cultural elite of Delhi. As for the powers that be in Calcutta, his home city, where he had hoped to have a collection of his pictures preserved, offers first by Jyoti Basu and then by Buddhadev Bhattacharya to create such a collection turned out to be empty promises. The funds to publish a book of Sunil’s works could also not be raised in his lifetime. However his book Photographing India is now due to be published by Oxford University Press, in November this year after several years of delays.

As for the invaluable archive of his pictures – it remains in the Janah’s house in Berkeley - so far it has not been possible to persuade the Indian government to acquire it.

Many of Sunil Janah’s pictures can be seen on a website set up by his son Arjun Janah

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