Ram Rahman, The Hindu , jUNE 23, 2012
Sunil Janah, the photographer whose searing coverage of the Bengal Famine and vivid political portraiture of the 1940s and 1950s helped chronicle a tumultuous era in the life of India, passed away at his home in Berkeley, California on June 21. He was 94 years old.
His wife, Shobha, passed away only a few weeks before. He is survived by his son, Arjun Janah.
Janah was born in Assam in 1918, but grew up in Calcutta. He was educated at St. Xavier’s and Presidency colleges in Calcutta. Like so many others at the time, he had joined the Student Federation inspired by left-wing politics. When the British lifted the ban on the Communist Party of India as it supported the Allied front against the fascist forces of Hitler and Mussolini, Janah caught the eye of CPI’s visionary general secretary, P.C. Joshi. At the time, Janah was a keen amateur photographer; Joshi recognised his talent and overnight persuaded him to abandon his English studies and travel with him and the artist Chittoprasad to photograph the famine raging across Bengal in 1943. The photographs by Janah published in the party journal People’s War brought him instant fame as they revealed to a shocked nation the horror of the famine.
Janah later moved with Chittoprasad to live in the Party commune in Bombay, where both were intimately associated with the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and IPTA, the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Janah had become the most famous photographer in India by then and was sought out by LIFE magazine’s Margaret Bourke White, with whom he formed a unique friendship and working relationship in 1945.
Unlike other photographers, Janah was an active political worker whose political work happened to be photography. Because of his talent and reputation, P.C. Joshi happily acceded to requests from the Congress party, the Muslim League and the National Conference in Kashmir to allow him to photograph their meetings and conventions. As an insider with a political ideology, Janah’s photographs stood out for their passionate engagement, idealism and an uncompromising artistic vision. He became intimate not just with all the legendary cultural figures associated with the Left in the 1940s, but also the entire spectrum of the political leadership. His portraits of these legends stand out for their intimate and personal power. Most were published in the CPI newspaper People’s Age.
After the political split in the Communist Party when P.C. Joshi was sidelined 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. Ray designed his first book of photographs, The Second Creature (Signet Press), in 1949. In Calcutta, he started photographing dance and dancers making iconic pictures of Shanta Rao, Ragini Devi, Indrani Rahman and many others. He also made an extensive document on commercial assignment of the new steel mills, coal mines, power plants, railway engine factories and dams being built in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa — the great ‘temples of modern India’ coming up in the 1950s. His later documentation across India of the tribal communities, done with anthropologist Verrier Elvin, was another landmark.
Janah’s work is the defining epic document of the last decade of the freedom struggle and the first decade of free India — a chronicler of the ‘Nehruvian’ years. He remained a committed communist till his last breath, though not a party member. Sunil Janah had married Shobha, a doctor, and moved to Delhi in the 1960s. Never good at commerce, Janah became very bitter at his work being extensively used without payment or credit, and fulminated particularly against Mulk Raj Anand, who used his pictures in Marg — pictures which educated an entire generation about India’s temple architecture and sculpture. This bitterness made him a recluse in later life and led to the huge body of his work being hidden from public view for decades.
I was able to mount a huge retrospective of his work in New York in 1998 in an informal exhibition of 600 vintage prints, which created a sensation. A full- page review in The New York Times brought scores of people to the gallery, many older Indians left sobbing, so moved were they by the history they saw.
Sadly, the funds needed for a book on his work could never be raised during his lifetime; nor could the Government of India be persuaded to acquire the treasure of his archive, which sits in his basement in Berkeley.
The Government of India awarded him a Padma Shri in January 2012, mistakenly conferring on him the same honour which Indira Gandhi had given him in 1974. Embarrassed, the government upgraded it to a Padma Bhushan. It had not yet been presented to Janah by the Consul-General in San Francisco at the time of his death.
(Ram Rahman is a photographer.)