People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

July 01, 2012

Legendary Photographer of Bengal Famine Passes Away


Ram Rahman


ON June 21, Sunil Janah (1918-2012), the great photographer, passed away peacefully in his home in Berkeley, California. His wife, Shobha, had passed away only a few weeks before. He is survived by his son Arjun Janah of Brooklyn, New York.


Janah was born in Assam in 1918, but grew up in Calcutta. He was educated at St Xavier's College and Presidency College in Calcutta. Like so many others at the time, he joined the students federation and was inspired by the Left wing politics. When the ban on the Communist Party was lifted by the British as they supported the allied front against the fascist forces of Hitler and Mussolini, he caught the eye of the visionary general secretary of the Communist Party, P C Joshi. 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 the shocked nation the horror of the famine. He moved with Chittoprasad to live in the party commune in Bombay, where both were intimately associated with the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). 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, PC 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 1940's, 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 party journal People's Age.


After the political split in the Communist Party when PC 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. Satyajit 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 the new India coming up in the 1950's. His later documentation across India of the tribal communities, done with the anthropologist Verrier Elvin, was another landmark.


His work is the defining epic document of the last decade of the freedom struggle and the first decade of free India --- the 'Nehruvian' years. Janah remained a committed communist till his last breadth, though not a party member. Sunil Janah had married Shobha, a medical doctor, and moved to Delhi in the sixties when she got a job here. Never very 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 work being hidden from public view for decades. 


Ram Rahman 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 in tears, so moved by the history they saw. Sadly, it was not possible to ever raise funds for a book and all efforts for years to persuade the government of India to acquire the treasure of his archive, which sits in his basement in Berkeley failed. The government of India awarded Janah a Padma Shree in January 2012, mistakenly awarding him the same honour which Indira Gandhi had given him in 1972. Embarrassed, the government upgraded it to a Padma Bhushan. It had not yet been presented to Janah by the Consul General in San Fransisco at the time of his death.


The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) has paid tribute to Sunil Janah with whom it had had an intimate relationship. The SAHMAT hosted a major lecture on his work by Ram Rahman at the Nehru Memorial Museum at Teen Murti two years ago. Janah's photos of Gandhi featured in the SAHMATís posters during their commemoration of Gandhi and his photographs, books and pictures in People's War were recently exhibited at Teen Murti in the SAHMAT's symposium on the Progressive Culture Legacy of the PWA and IPTA in Teen Murti. Ram Rahman also presented his lecture on Janah at the Town Hall in Ernakulum, Kerala, at a huge public meeting.