At a time when not many have cared to remember Sunil Janah or his pioneering work, Boi Chitra must be thanked for organizing an exhibition featuring 16 rare photographs taken by Janah, who remains one of India’s foremost photojournalists. Janah was born in Assam but received his higher education in Calcutta’s Presidency College. His interest in, and knowledge of, photography can be attributed to his acquaintance with Shambhu Saha. Another source of inspiration was P.C. Joshi, the first general-secretary of the Communist Party of India, who, in turn, was greatly impressed by Janah’s work.
Perhaps it was Janah’s association with Joshi that turned his body of work decisively political. The exhibition featured a photograph of a pile of dead bodies dumped unceremoniously during the Bombay Mutiny in 1946. What is striking is the manner in which Janah goes about capturing the singular features of each corpse: a pair of feet loosely tied with a rope, a blood-spattered face that has become virtually unrecognizable, another face, this time clearly distinguishable, with a serene expression that can be brought on only by death. The bodies transform themselves into symbols of a particularly violent and fractured time.
Janah not only recorded social and political horrors but also beauty. This is apparent from a photograph showing a vast open sky with bunched, grey-white clouds, a cluster of trees at the edge of a freshly ploughed field and a solitary shepherd. Each element here comes together to amplify the surreal beauty of rural Bengal.
There is also a subaltern narrative that runs through much of his work. This explains Janah’s careful detailing of the sensual physical features of two women from Bastar’s Maria tribe. Janah seems to have succeeded in challenging conventional notions of beauty without compromising the dignity of his subjects. Another image, one that captures the beauty of the Decisive Moment, is a picture of three young girls skipping with each of their feet seemingly suspended in mid-air. Such exquisite timing is undeniably the hallmark of a highly skilled user of the camera.
More than his political leanings, it is Janah’s humanism that remains etched in these images. The photograph of the aged Nazrul holding a newspaper in his hand is a case in point (picture). What the photograph chooses to conceal is the fact that at that point in his life, the poet, who had been crippled by a stroke, had virtually lost his memory. Human frailty is magically transformed to convey an impression of poise and dignity with the help of the lens through which Janah viewed the world.