Even if by some chance you’ve never heard of Sunil Janah, you are sure to have come across his work. NCERT text books have for decades been sprinkled with iconic photographs shot by Janah – one of the most memorable is the one of Mahatma Gandhi, shot at the Birla House in Mumbai (see pic). Janah is remembered as a trusting, large-hearted person. Professor KT Ravindran, head of the department of urban design at Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture, who knew Janah for 35 years, recounts: “In the early 70s Sunil Janah came to my uncle’s home for a cup of tea. I had just come in from Hyderabad. He was about leave for the UK and was looking for someone to take care of his house in Defence Colony. When my uncle suggested my name, Janah didn’t hesitate and said ‘sure, why don’t you take care of my house?’. I was the custodian of his negatives for 13 years and inherited his dark room.” Ravindran remembers Janah as “a truly liberated soul, a real iconoclast who had the energy of a 20 year old even in his later years”.His passing has been widely reported in the New York Times and The Guardian and his work recognised as era-iconic in many countries. For a long time, Janah did not exhibit his work due to his reaction to unethical practices adopted by various publications. "Janah became bitter at his work being extensively used without payment or credit. This made him a recluse in later life and led to the huge body of work being hidden from public view for decades," explains Ram Rahman, eminent photographer and close friend to Janah, who has brought a collection of Janah’s work to Delhi’s Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust.
When destiny beckoned
With Janah, it seemed very much a case of being at the right place at the right time. A famine struck Bengal in 1942, which was a glaring example of British apathy as the administration grossly mismanaged distribution and storage of food grains. Taking this as a great opportunity to draw attention to how imperialism was ravaging India. Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary PC Joshi persuaded 24-year-old Sunil Janah, who was an amateur photographer doing his postgraduation in English literature at the University of Calcutta, to abandon his studies and contribute to making people aware of the severity of the situation. Joshi’s writing along with Janah’s photographs brought home the misery and despair of the people to thousands of readers in India and abroad.
Though this meant instant fame, the now celebrated Janah wasn’t without remorse. He later said: “People were starving and dying and I was holding a camera to their faces, intruding into their suffering and grief. I envied people who were involved in relief work because they were at least doing something to relieve people’s distress. It was a very harrowing experience, but I also felt that I had to take photographs. There had to be a record of what was happening, and I would do it with my photographs.”
Among the Indian political class too Janah was in great demand. Janah with his sophistication and affability soon forged warm relationships with the who’s who of the Indian freedom scene, including Mahatma Gandhi, MA Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah. Janah would also go on to document the rise of industry in the times of Nehru.
One of Janah’s comrades remembers him through the stages of his membership with the CPI. “We looked up to Sunil Janah as something of a celebrity,” says Professor Nripen Bandyopadhyaya, a long-serving party member who retired from the Centre for Studies of Social Sciences in 1995 as senior scholar. Janah’s work went beyond the political sphere. “After the split in the Communist Party... in 1947, Janah moved back to Calcutta and opened a studio. He was a founding member, along with Satyajit Ray, Chidananda Das Gupta and Hari Das Gupta, of the Calcutta Film Society,” says Rahman.
Janah went on to capture iconic pictures of danseuse Indrani Rahman (Ram Rahman’s mother), Patiala Gharana maestro Bade Ghulam Ali and other eminent personalities. His lens was equally generous toward other subjects – be it the fishermen of Orissa, Garo boatmen from Meghalaya, or temple sculpture in Konark.
It is little known that Janah “had gone through most of his life, and composed all his photographs, with just one properly functioning eye. His other eye had been rendered almost useless at a very early age, probably by undetected glaucoma,” as chronicled on a website (suniljanah.org) dedicated to the man and his work.