The late Sunil Janah’s pictures capture the beauty, the hopes and the despair of a young India.
By Sunil Janah
Oxford University Press
Rs. 3995 pp 300
Everyone has, in childhood, sat mesmerised as grandparents narrated stories about their lives: of how they crossed borders, fought to marry the one they loved, fought for the nation.
These were the stories that made them who they were, individuals worthy of an audience. Sunil Janah’s Photographing India plucks at those very chords of memory and evokes that familiar feeling of being in the company of men and women whose stories we listened to as awed children, often after having lost a game of cricket.
The book is divided in two parts: 126 minutely detailed and opinionated pages of text written in the first person by the chronicler himself, followed by 174 pages of black and white images of India.
In the first section, Janah speaks about himself, his life in Calcutta and Bombay, his mentor PC Joshi, his time with the Communist Party and his interactions with the leaders of the independent nation that was coming into being.
He writes of his love for photographing women, his eye for architecture, his friends and his family. He speaks of the Partition, his issues with communism and his view of the post 9/11 world.
He also writes of times when photographers happily gifted prints to each other and reminisces about travelling to the remotest corners of India, places that can still only be approached on foot.
Janah’s words are a fine display of his memory. He remembers vivid details and pens them down lucidly. He recalls all the back stories behind his famous images, and those encounters heighten the pleasure of looking at them.
Besides the amusing bits, Janah also speaks of the wretched times, the riots, the refugees, the famines, his own arrests, and his misfortunes as a photographer largely due to his poor business sense. It would be a grave injustice to Janah if the reader jumped over the text and went straight to the photos.
The book’s second section opens with a pensive portrait of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He is bathed in morning light and the dark shadow of an arch at Birla House is behind him. The photograph dates to 1946 — when the demand for an independent India and Jinnah’s demand for Partition and a separate state had gathered equal momentum.
For Janah, having witnessed the horrors of Partition, Independence was a memory as dark as that arch. Janah’s photographs remind the viewer of how truly “modern” India was, how the nation had something to fight for, something that everyone wanted.
This is a visual documentary of a graceful time, a time when nudity was nowhere close to obscenity; a mirror to a glorious past, of cities and towns now reduced to a tri-colour graph of grey, chrome and beige shopping malls.
Janah’s accounts of the misuse of his images are out of any artist’s worst nightmares. His prints — circulated without credit, sold without permission and payment to the creator or worse, languishing in dingy godowns for years — have survived all the abuse that a print and a negative can handle.
Janah withstood it all with grace. For him, the people of this complex nation were not just subjects; they are manifestations of God Himself. He believed that momentarily being a part of the lives of his subjects was reward enough. No amount of monetary losses ever made him think otherwise.
The only minor flaw of the book is the layout of the images. As a result, many poignant images are a bit lost. But a patient reader will surely find ways to savour the images.
For these are the honest stories of our past, of our origins as a people. Janah’s photographs recall the uplifting piano notes in Eddie Vedder’s Long Nights: three taps played just once in the song, but dear God, the song would be lifeless without them. Without Janah’s images, the record of our nation’s history too would be equally lifeless.
Ritesh Uttamchandani is Deputy photo editor, Open Magazine