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Past Lives

A few months ago, advertising photographer Aditya Arya made a stunning discovery. Inside many unopened cartons left to him by his photo-journalist uncle, Kulwant Roy, more than two decades ago, lay a stupendous collection of thousands of photographs from the late 1930s onwards. The pictures are an evocative visual chronicle of our freedom movement and the great men who made independent India a reality. As Aditya begins the formidable but exhilarating task of archiving the photographs, he is also embarking on a quest of another kind: piecing together the life of a man who belonged to the pioneering generation of India’s photo-journalists. Poonam Saxena tells more.

entertainment Updated: Jul 14, 2010 19:07 IST
Poonam Saxena
Poonam Saxena
Hindustan Times

From Archives of


for 5th Anniversary Special

Almost 25 years ago, advertising photographer Aditya Arya inherited several sealed cartons from his photojournalist uncle, Kulwant Roy. It was the summer of 1984. Aditya had just started his career when the ageing Kulwant died in a Delhi hospital, leaving the cartons to Aditya in his will.

The years flew by. Aditya established himself as a leading commercial photographer. The cartons stood in a corner of his studio, silently gathering dust. Every six months, Aditya’s mother would remind him about their existence. Aditya would promise to open them soon. But those were busy years and he never found the time. Till a few months ago when – guiltily aware that he may have left it too late – he finally picked up the cartons, took them to his desk, blew off the dust and opened them.

And discovered a magnificent collection of literally thousands and thousands of photographs and negatives from the 1930s and ’40s, vividly chronicling India’s freedom movement in awesome detail. There are pictures of Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan – indeed all the luminaries of the national movement. Momentous events – like the INA trials, the coming of the Cripps Mission – are chronicled almost frame by frame.

JawaharThe collection doesn’t end in 1947 either; Kulwant continued to shoot extensively after independence. There is an entire series on the making of the Bhakra Nangal Dam. As the first Prime Minister, Nehru was one of the most photographed leaders in the world; Kulwant too followed him like a shadow, and shot him in various moods, at innumerable public appearances.

For Aditya, it was like discovering living, breathing history. He is still in a state of mild shock. But even in this slightly dazed condition, he has begun the mammoth, almost impossible task of archiving the photographs, print by print, negative by negative.

He has also embarked on another journey – tracing the life of a remarkable man he knew only as an affectionate uncle.

Aditya’s top-floor studio in his Gurgaon house is overflowing with photographs. Two young men sit at a computer all day long, scanning Kulwant’s pictures one by one and filing them away.

Aditya AryaAditya tries to explain the enormity of the task. "When I opened the cartons, I found that each one was full of packets all neatly labelled ac-cording to the pictures," he says. "There were packets labelled simply, ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Nehru.’ There were others labeled ‘Muslim League’ or ‘INA Trials’ or ‘Gandhi’s visit to the North West Frontier Provinces.’ Some packets had photographs, some had negatives. In many cases, the negatives were stuck to each other, or were badly damaged."

The task of archiving the collection is daunting, laborious, time-consuming – and very, very exciting.

Every now and then, Aditya comes across a gem – like the picture of Gandhi getting off a Third Class compartment at a railway station in 1938 – which moves him to tears.

Every day is a process of discovery. “Kulwant’s post-1947 work is also fascinating. He documented the 1965 war day by day. There are separate envelopes for every day,” reveals Aditya with some wonder. His wife Rita and two school-going children, Ishaan and Mallika, have also been pitching in, helping him in this project of a lifetime. As have Aditya’s parents who now live a quiet retired life in Roorkee.

Mahatma GandhiAditya’s father was a lecturer in Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College. The Aryas had a lovely, cottage-style house within the college campus. Aditya remembers Kulwant dropping into their home regularly since the ’60s when Aditya was just a schoolboy. "He would tell us wonderful stories about his travels and all the famous people he had met in his life in the course of his work," remembers Aditya.

As Aditya grew up and joined college, he became interested in photography. Sometimes, Kulwant would take Aditya with him during assignments.

“I particularly remember how, when he had to cover the Republic Day parade, he would pick me up at five in the morning and we would go to the Press Box. Many of his friends would be there. He would carry a flask of hot coffee and packets of moongphali for them.”

In the late ’70s, Kulwant was diagnosed with cancer. And by the mid-80s, he was dead.

Today, Aditya is trying to piece together Kulwant’s life – by delving into his own memories, by trawling through his uncle’s private papers, by talking to his mother and by trying to locate people who may have known him. The last is proving difficult since most of the people who were Kulwant’s friends are no longer alive.

Even so, Aditya is slowly building a picture in his head – it is still fuzzy and dim, but he can see the lines more sharply as he proceeds on his quest. And what he sees is the image of a maverick and rebel, an adventurous man passionately in love with his craft.

Gandhi and JinnahBorn in 1914, Kulwant got to know Aditya’s mother’s family when they were all living in Lahore in the ’30s. He became very close to her uncles and worked with them in their photo studio called Gopal Chitra Kutir. Soon he got a job as a photographer with what was then the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF). "But he didn’t last there very long," says Aditya. Here’s what happened. There was a swimming pool which was used by British officers for the entire week. Only by the end of the week when the water had got dirty were Indians allowed to use the pool. Kulwant decided to register his protest. One day, he and some other similarly outraged Indians went to the pool at four in the morning and shat in the water. That was the end of his short-lived RIAF career ("but not before he had done some fabulous aerial photography," adds Aditya).

Kulwant returned to Lahore. In the early ’40s, he moved to Delhi where he set up a photo studio in Mori Gate (then a posh Delhi address) called Associated Press Photos which he ran till the day he died. He never married. Maybe his single status was linked to a significant chapter in his life, which began promisingly but ended in tragedy.

In 1958, almost on the spur of the moment, Kulwant embarked on a world tour. For almost three years, he travelled incessantly, visiting more than 30 countries. He would contact newspaper and magazine offices in each country and sell them pictures of India; at the same time he would shoot extensively in every country he visited. In the course of his travels, he went to Japan and met a young Japanese girl called Sushi. They fell in love. After Kulwant left Japan, she wrote several letters to him, mailing them to the Indian embassy in whichever country he was. Aditya has found some tender love letters written by her in Kulwant’s private papers. A letter written in May 1961 reads, rather poignantly, “I love you darling… You make me happy, you also give me pain…”

Aditya is convinced that Kulwant intended to get her to India when he returned from his travels. He has even found an affidavit in his uncle’s private papers, sponsoring her trip to India. But she never came. Kulwant never spoke of her to anyone. Aditya can’t figure out what happened. There is one clue though. Towards the end of his international travels, Kulwant mailed all the pictures he had taken during his world tour to his Mori Gate address.

When he arrived in India in 1961, he found that each and every parcel he had mailed had been stolen. “That really broke him,” says Aditya. “He had hoped to live off the work he had done abroad for the next 20 years of his life. But that was not to be.” Kulwant spent weeks hunting for his precious pictures. He would rummage through garbage bins, hoping to find something. He placed advertisements in local newspapers, promising a reward to whoever found them. But no one turned up. The pictures were lost forever.

Aditya doesn’t know if this devastating loss had anything to do with Sushi not coming to India. “But maybe there was a connection,” he says. “Maybe Kulwant thought he wouldn’t be able to look after her financially. I don’t know.”

Today, as Aditya embarks on his journey of resurrecting the visual archives of Kulwant Roy, he wonders why it took him so long to open those cartons. “I guess there’s a time for everything,” he says meditatively. “Today I’m in the 29th year of my profession. Today I realise what a photographer goes through. Today I realise how important it is to have respect for someone’s work. When you think of what people of Kulwant’s generation went through to get visuals, you feel so humbled.”

Aditya explains that the sheet film cameras of those days meant that the photographer had only one chance to take one picture. To take the next picture, he had to re-load the camera. Roll film arrived only in the ’50s. The single bulb flash camera came in the late ’40s. Before that, photographers used ‘flash powder,’ which was an explosive powder. The photographer’s assistant would put the requisite amount of flash powder in a cup and light it. There would be a big glow, during which the photographer would take his picture.

“Kulwant told me of a really funny incident,” recalls Aditya. “Once six or seven photographers were shooting Nehru. They decided that instead of all the assistants igniting their flash powders, only Kulwant’s assistant would do so and everyone would shoot at the right moment. But Kulwant’s assistant thought that since seven photographers would be taking pictures, he should put in seven times the amount of flash powder.” Kulwant gave the signal, his assistant lit the powder, but instead of a glow, there was an explosion. Everyone was covered with soot. Nehru was, understandably, furious. “It sounds funny now, but it was very dangerous, people could have got killed,” says Aditya.

Nobody did that day. But almost all the towering leaders that Kulwant Roy photographed have long since gone from our lives. The tumultuous times he recorded are over. But his legacy brings both those extraordinary men and their extraordinary times to life once more. Aditya still has the last picture Kulwant took – it remained in the camera that he bequeathed to Aditya. It was a photograph of a NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) meeting in Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan, Kulwant Roy’s final assignment.

From Archives of Brunch for 5th Anniversary Special

First Published: Jul 13, 2010 13:58 IST