When photographer and curator Ram Rahman was invited by a Noida-based collector Vijay Agarwal to see his collection of vintage prints of Sunil Janah’s photographs, he was skeptical. Janah was not in the habit of giving his prints to people. But, as he began seeing the collection, it became clear that this was a treasure trove; these were prints he had made and covered some of the major themes of his work–tribals and industrialisation.
Janah is one of India’s most significant photographers of the era just before independence and after. A member of the Communist Party of India, Janah was sent by the party, along with artist Chittoprasad, to document the Bengal famine. Along with the reports of CPI secretary P C Joshi, the photographs appeared in the party magazine People’s War.
He then moved to Bombay, where the party offices were full of writers, artists, performers, all engaged in taking their work to the people via organisations such as Indian People’s Theatre Association and Progressive Writers Association. Janah’s work was mainly being printed in cheaply produced party journals but it was attracting notice for its aesthetic quality and craft. Janah, a product of a cosmopolitan Bengali ethos, had a painterly eye but did not ever succumb to sentimentalism.
“In terms of style, much of this work was in the ‘heroic left’ mode – shot from a low angle looking up, which tended to give a mythic dimension to the subject. When asked how aware he was of this as a deliberate stylistic device, Janah says that the twin lens Rolleiflex camera itself dictated this style which involved shooting from the waist up. But he had also seen the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin and the German filmmakers and said that the look was also in the air at the time.
“While Janah travelled around India photographing peasant and labour meetings, he was able to photograph the villagers and their lives on his own time. PC Joshi encouraged him to do this,” writes Rahman in a catalogue that accompanied an exhibition of the collection in Delhi last year and which now opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai.
Janah is the photographer of Nehruvian India but his works have more than just nostalgia value; they are a documentation of an India in the throes of transition. His photographs of tribal societies, unchanged for millennia, tell us that India exists on many levels and in many eras at the same time. Modernity is however on the way, as can be seen from photographs of gigantic industrialisation projects that began in the 1950s.
Sunil Janah Vintage Photographs 1940-1960 opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, on October 1.