Documenting society and politics

Print edition : September 12, 1998
A Frontline feature on the photography of Sunil Janah.

IN an unassuming row house in Wimbledon lives the person who was India's most well-known photojournalist and documentary photographer of the 1940s. In Sunil Janah's study in this welcoming household, he and his wife Shobha Janah sit among photographs, books, boxes and filing cabinets, the main archive of a career spent in photographing India.

Sunil Janah. - V.K. RAMACHANDRAN

There has been a revival of interest in the work of Sunil Janah - an overdue revival - in recent years (although there were exhibitions of his work in the former Socialist countries of Eastern Europe in the mid-1970s). BBC TV and ITV produced films on his life and work in the 1980s. There were retrospectives of his work in New Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai in 1991-92 and soon after the inauguration of the Nehru Centre in London in 1992, an exhibition of his photographs was held there (the Director of the Centre, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, did a detailed interview with Janah for the oral record preserved in the Centre). Janah's photographs were shown at the Havana Biennale in 1992. He has also had shows in London in 1997-98. A major exhibition, titled "Photographing India, 1942-78: the country and the people, the struggle for independence, the cruelties of Partition" and curated by Ram Rahman, is on show in New York until September 15 (see review on Page 76). Although Janah has published three books (The Second Creature, 1948; Dances of the Golden Hall, 1979; The Tribals of India, 1993), it is certainly time that an effort be made to bring together a representative selection of his work in a major book.

SUNIL JANAH was born in Assam in 1918, where his maternal grandfather was an engineer on the railways. Janah's family was a Calcutta family - his father was a lawyer - although his father's traditional home was in Medinipur district. Janah was educated at St. Xavier's and Presidency Colleges and by 1942-43, was studying for an M.A. in English Literature and for a degree in Law. He was by then also a member of the Communist Party-led Students Federation.

A rally of Hajang tribal peasants in a village in northeastern Bengal, 1945. - SUNIL JANAH

His life changed decisively in 1943. Imperial policy brought about the Bengal Famine in which more than three million people died. P.C. Joshi, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, came to Calcutta to go to the famine-stricken countryside. He called Janah, who he knew had taken some photographs at that time of his party comrades, and told Janah to accompany him on his trip. "'I shall do the reportage and you take the photographs' is what he told me," Janah says, "and that is how I became a photographer."

They travelled all over Bengal, Joshi writing and Janah taking photographs, and the journey was in more ways than one a transformatory experience for Janah."It was very distressing because I felt like doing things other than taking photographs. The camera is, of course, a kind of symbol of prying curiosity. 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 the 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."

As has been noted elsewhere in the writing on Janah, few photographers have made such an impact with their first formal assignment. Janah's photographs became famous almost immediately; they were published in the Communist press all over India and the world. Soon after Joshi left Calcutta, Janah went to Orissa to photograph starvation there.

Starvation victims arriving at a relief centre in the Rayalaseema region, 1945. - SUNIL JANAH

Joshi told Janah to give up university and come to the party headquarters to work as a whole-timer for the party. Janah's father wanted his son to finish his degree and Janah too, hesitant at first to heed Joshi's call, asked whether he could finish his examinations before beginning work. "Joshi said 'No - that is utterly unimportant'," recalls Janah, smiling, "and then I too believed that the examinations were, indeed, utterly unimportant." Janah moved to Bombay, where he became a full party member and a whole-timer living in party headquarters. He received 20 rupees a month, of which 10 rupees went to the common kitchen.

"FROM then on the party decided where I should go," says Janah. He photographed worker and peasant demonstrations and meetings, he photographed the Communist movement and the freedom struggle and its leaders, and he photographed the communal violence that tore India apart. When on assignment - "every feature was exciting" - he also took a few days extra to photograph the lives and work of India's working people; thus began the documentary work that was to continue into the 1950s, after Janah was no longer formally part of the Communist movement. "I wanted to show who the party was for," says Janah, "and the people at work and in struggle." Janah remembers Joshi with respect as a person who appreciated this parallel theme in his photography, "and it was marvellous that he used not only the political photographs but also the photographs I took of the people. I took such photographs all over India, and in that way a big collection of photographs of ordinary people living and working in the villages became a part of our library at party headquarters." Janah soon had a page reserved for him in the party journal; he was responsible for the photographs, text and layout of this regular photo-feature.

Muslim peasant girls in eastern Bengal, 1944 - SUNIL JANAH

There were other assignments as well. On one occasion in 1945, Sheikh Abdullah, having seen his work, invited the party to send him to Kashmir. Janah stayed with Sheikh Abdullah; on the first morning in the Sheikh's house he skipped breakfast because the other guest at the table was Jawaharlal Nehru, "and I was terribly shy of being at the same breakfast table as him." Nevertheless, he struck an acquaintance with Nehru on this trip, and Nehru did not fail to recognise him on subsequent assignments. Kashmir itself was "wide open for me - I was welcome to go anywhere and wherever I went, Kashmir was wonderful."

Margaret Bourke-White's association with Janah in the 1940s is now well known, particularly after the publication of Vicki Goldberg's distinguished biography of Bourke-White (Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography, Radcliffe Biography Series, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Reading, Mass., 1987). Bourke-White came to the party office in 1945 to contact Janah (Janah thinks that she may have got to know of his work through the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India) and was introduced to him by Joshi. Bourke-White wanted to go to south India, Janah was going there too, and it was agreed that they would go together. "And for the first time," Janah says dryly, "Life magazine paid for the expenses of the Communist Party. It was also the first time in my life that I travelled in the first class in a railway train."

The association must clearly have been a fruitful one for both. Through Janah and his activist comrades, Bourke-White gained access to an India that she may not otherwise have experienced, and for Janah, it was an opportunity to work in association with one of the world's most famous photographers. Each worked on their own assignments and they worked together as well; it is certainly not correct, as suggested in the Bourke-White biography, that Janah was her "assistant". (There is an interesting photograph, taken with a self-timer, of Janah, Bourke-White and P.B. Rangnekar sitting on a bench at the railway platform, c. 1945; it can be viewed at

Coal miners in Bihar, 1948. - SUNIL JANAH

They also became friends: Bourke-White "was not a Communist but was Left-minded - her sympathies were all on our side." On one occasion, when in Bengal to cover communal violence there, Janah was to see an example of Bourke-White's professional focus. The village to which they had to go was accessible only by boat, and their host, a British police officer, spoke insultingly to Janah, who told Bourke-White that he would not travel with the officer. Of what ensued, Janah has written (this account is from Goldberg's biography of Bourke-White):

I could see that Peggy was angry, but she calmly sat down beside me: 'Look, Sunil,' she said, 'you know that I am on your side of the fence no matter who and what these people are. They and only they can take us where we want to go to do our own work. It is not for our gains and satisfaction or whatever but for being able to tell the world what we may find with our pictures, isn't that what our job is all about?'

Bourke-White persuaded Janah to stay, and, in the event, as Janah recalls, found an opportunity to see that the policeman got his comeuppance as well.

During the Bengal Famine of 1943, a Muslim family leaves its village in Chittagong district in eastern Bengal. - SUNIL JANAH

BY 1948, Janah was, it is fair to say, India's best-known photographer in his field. He was a documentary photographer in the two accepted senses of the term in photography. He documented events concerning the freedom movement, the Communist and peasants' and workers' movements, Partition and the major personalities of the period. Secondly, a body of work had emerged that could be termed social documentation; the political photographs and the photographs of the people of India represented a record of contemporary social conditions as well as a record of events.

Hindu and Muslim peasants in a village near Basti in U.P., 1946. - SUNIL JANAH

Tea pickers in the Darjeeling hills in West Bengal, 1954. - SUNIL JANAH

In the 1940s and later, Janah worked with a 241 "x 241 " format twin lens Rolleiflex with an 80mm lens and a 35 mm Leica with a 50 mm lens (the Leica was given to the organisation by a party sympathiser). He generally used Kodak and Agfa film. Film for the Leica often came from workers in the film industry, who saved up for Janah's use end-bits of film that would otherwise have been wasted. Although his eyesight is now failing, Janah continues to print his own photographs.

Mahatma Gandhi at a prayer meeting in Birla House, Bombay, 1946 - SUNIL JANAH

n 1948, Janah moved back to Calcutta. In the inner-party debate of the period, he was considered a Joshiite: "I was disliked by people in the other group, though not by Ranadive himself, who was always very affectionate to me." He was also "uncomfortable" with the changes that were being made in the pages of the journal for which he had hitherto been responsible. He continued for a time to work on assignments from Calcutta, although not as a whole-timer. In the 1950s there was a formal break; Janah learned from a party newspaper that he had been expelled. He continued his work on the people of India in the 1950s, he photographed independent India's new industrial efforts as well as its ancient monuments and dance. Janah and his wife Shobha, a medical doctor and Ph.D. in Immunology, moved to England in 1978.

P.C. Joshi, G. Adhikari and B.T. Ranadive at a meeting of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India at the CPI headquarters in Bombay in 1945. - SUNIL JANAH

NO Indian photographer has created a body of work that is quite comparable to that of Sunil Janah. Janah's achievement lies in the photographic record that he has created. In his photographs - of famine and hunger in 1943, of peasant movements, of the police arresting a peasant leader in U.P, of police officers at a trade union meeting in Bombay, of the revolt of the R.I.N. sailors, of Gandhiji and other personalities of the freedom movement, of boatmen on the Ganga and of the people of India - the salient feature is his subject matter itself.

Shobha Janah. - SUNIL JANAH

An interesting feature of many of his photographs is Janah's use of vantage point, of photographing from below to create a sense of the heroic. Janah says that this was a case of his own bent of mind matching the technology that was available to him. He photographed upwards because he had to hold his Rolleiflex at waist-level; at the same time, the angle of vision created the imposing composition that he wanted. "Sunil tended to classical composition, to make his subjects look powerful," says his wife Sobha. "Look, for instance, at this photgraph of boatmen. And, as he says, his camera also dictated such composition".

"I am still," Janah says, " undoubtedly a believer in socialism." Capitalism remains for him an "insane system, based on greed. Its basic feature is that the greedier you are, the higher you go - this is hardly a society, it is a wilderness."

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