In 2012, after Sunil Janah died at the age of 94, tributes poured in from all over the world, celebrating the Assam-born photographer’s luminous, although relatively unsung, career. Indeed, it was likely that several generations of Indians heard of his name for the first time with the news of his death—which was deeply ironic, considering how woefully poorer the visual history of 20th-century India would be without Janah’s uniquely original contribution.
A decade after Janah’s death, Experimenter gallery’s Ballygunge Place wing in Kolkata is poised to open a new exhibition of his work, Making a Photograph. The title draws on the name of a book by Ansel Adams, the great American landscape photographer Janah had idolised. But instead of Janah’s humanitarian photography, which is historically rich and emotionally accessible, this show turns its attention to a less-obvious facet of his career: urban and industrial photography.
The decision to focus on this specific aspect of Janah’s oeuvre is brave. His cityscapes and photographs of newly-independent India are striking, but not as quickly arresting as, say, that of the architectural photographs of Madan Mahatta, an outstanding chronicler of Nehruvian India. Instead of clean lines and elegant frames, Janah’s photographs of the bustling steel plants in Bhilai and Rourkela, or the dark and dingy coal mines of Bihar, seem to have been captured in great haste. Each frame--smoky, grainy, grimy, a bit askew—throbs with motion. A lifelong communist, Janah’s approach was very much of and for the proletariats.
Until he moved to the UK in 1980, and then to the US in 2003, Janah worked with a range of subjects during his years in India. Deeply attached as he was to the arts, especially cinema (Satyajit Ray, a close friend, designed Janah’s first photobook, The Second Creature), the human was central to his frame.
In 1998, a major exhibition of Janah’s works from 1942-78 was organised by photographer Ram Rahman in New York. The show displayed the audacious variety of Janah’s interests: left-wing politics, Partition, travel, ethnography, famines, citiescapes, you name it. But one set of photographs left both the crowds and the critics reeling. These were the images of the 1943 Bengal famine, a man-made tragedy of epic proportions Janah had documented along with his comrade, the artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya.
Commissioned by P.C. Joshi, then general secretary of the Communist Party of India, for an assignment for the party’s magazine People’s War, the two men created some of the most affecting visual records of the famine that exist to this day. Bhattacharya made unforgettable prints of scenes of starvation and misery, while Janah created work that’s unsurpassed in its ability to evoke pity and horror. Skeletal adults and babies reduced to skin and bones, daily struggles to secure a morsel, dogs gnawing at corpses, every conceivable shade of assault on human dignity, were caught on Janah’s unsparing lens. Some of these photographs were turned into postcards and sent around the world to raise funds for the victims.
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Janah’s work caught the eye of Margaret Bourke-White, an American photojournalist who became one of the most iconic chroniclers of the Partition for Life magazine. She travelled with Janah, in 1945, to the Rayalaseema and Mysore region of south India, as the famine spread beyond Bengal. Their work, a masterly combination of documentary instincts and humane artistic vision, appeared in Life to international acclaim. As Janah’s friendship with Bourke-White grew, he went on to collaborate with her on the Partition project, too.
For those familiar with Janah’s heart-rending work from the 1940s highlighting the plight of the vulnerable millions, his shift towards the depiction of robust industrial landscapes may seem jarring. But this stylistic suppleness was a trait of his photographic arsenal. A typical Janah photo seemed to combine a keen eye behind the lens with the photographic film’s ability to interact with the changing light, scenario and context of the frame. The outcome was a deftly calibrated image, where emotions were teased out by colour, texture and reproduction.
It was this special gift of making his technique interact with aesthetics that Janah picked up from Adams. In the pre-digital era, with limited scope of experimentation in the dark room, Adams expertly used natural light and weather conditions as his raw materials to get to the effect he desired. His early photographs taken at Yosemite National Park bear the imprint of this distinctive style, where black-and-white film interacts with misty weather and the liquid glow of sunlight to create poetry in the development room.
Janah’s industrial photography ventures into similar terrain, where the mastery of technique interacts with ways of looking to give depth and amplitude to what he captures. It is easier to experience this body of work as a celebration of the Nehruvian idyll of a new India. Machines and men work together to lay its foundations on the ruins of colonialism. The interiors of the factories and coal mines, full of colossal equipment operating with great urgency, seem of a piece with a post-war European aesthetic.
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In 1950s Germany, Bernd and Hilla Becher, an artistic couple, had set out on a project like Janah’s in the outskirts of Düsseldorf. As they went around photographing gigantic water towers, gas tanks and coal bunkers, the Bechers not only created an archive of a nation picking itself up from the devastations of two wars—they also pushed the boundaries of conceptual photography.
Janah’s images, too, acted as jigsaw puzzles that coalesce to convey a glimpse of a newly independent India, where the human hand is very much at work--be it in the form of men on a riffing of a Swedish ship anchored on Indian waters or a solitary individual riding a cargo car in the depths of the coal mine. If there is a desire to elevate the poetry of such everyday scenarios to the level of art, it is never achieved at the expense of the characters central to the making of the work.
Making A Photograph is on at Experimenter Ballygunge Place in Kolkata from 3 February to 26 March. For more information, visit experimenter.in
Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in New Delhi.