I first heard of Sunil Janah in 1980. I was then much taken with the work of the British-Indian anthropologist, Verrier Elwin. A friend in Calcutta, the green activist, Bonani Kakkar, said that if I was interested in Elwin I must meet her mamu, who had worked closely with him. However, I was visually illiterate, and had never heard of a man who was one of India’s finest photographers. Bonani filled me in on some of the details.
Three decades later, I (and everyone else) can revisit the life and legacy of Sunil Janah, via his posthumously published book Photographing India, which contains a selection of his images along with a long autobiographical essay reflecting on his life and work. The book is a priceless record of social and political life in India, circa 1940 to 1970. Peasants, workers, politicians; artists, dancers, musicians; street scenes, factory scenes, sea scenes — all are captured through the attentive and wide-ranging lens of the photographer.
Sunil Janah was born in 1918, into a family of educated and cultured Bengalis. While studying in Calcutta University, he, like other idealistic young men, became attracted to the Communist Party of India. He was a keen amateur photographer, whose work was printed in popular magazines. When a major famine hit Bengal in 1943, the CPI’s general secretary, P.C. Joshi, asked Janah to tour the countryside and document the starvation that stalked the land. His photos, published in the party’s newspaper, People’s War, attracted widespread attention (and admiration). Janah now abandoned his studies and became a full-time photographer.
The 1940s were a defining decade in Indian history. Following the famine, Janah covered the negotiation for the transfer of power, Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts and walks for communal harmony, and the horrors of Partition. He became a close friend of Margaret Bourke-White, whose photographs of that period have acquired a certain immortality. Without Janah’s help — technical and social — Bourke-White might never have been able to do what she did. That she became world-famous while he was known only in a select circle never really affected Janah, who was as free of conceit and personal ambition as any man (or woman) I have known.
In 1948, the hardliner, B.T. Ranadive, took over as general secretary of the CPI from the charming and cultured P.C. Joshi. The party had no place any more for independent-minded artists. Abandoned by the communists, Janah fell in love with a gifted and strong-willed Bengali woman doctor, named Sobha. She helped give him a new direction. He then met Verrier Elwin, their friendship flourishing through many visits to tribal India, with one man taking notes and the other man photos. Later, Janah got a series of industrial commissions, photographing dams and steel plants. Still later, he turned his attention to classical dance. His portraits of Shanta Rao and Balasaraswati are among the best things he ever did.
Janah writes that he was always “careless about money”, spending it as fast as it came. He was, he says, “plagued by an uncommon lack of business sense, or more generally of all common sense”. He never claimed copyright on his photographs, which were ubiquitously reproduced in India and abroad, without his permission or consent. Meanwhile, his eyesight, always weak, started failing further. There may also have been an excessive fondness for good liquor (a weakness common to both artists and communists).
With her husband’s health and career declining, in 1978 Sobha Janah took a job in a hospital in London. Sunil joined soon afterwards. It was here, in the early 1990s, that I first met them. I would go see them in their Wimbledon home, where, over many cups of tea, Sunil would speak of his friend the anthropologist, whose Life I was now writing. He was wonderfully generous with his time, and with his genius — when my book went into production he developed (for free) some fabulous (and previously unpublished) photographs he had taken of Verrier Elwin.
After 25 years in England, the Janahs moved to the United States, to be closer to their children. Both died last year, within months of one another. But their legacy lives on in Photographing India. The text of the book brims with knowledge, wit, and compassion, like the man himself. The tone is nicely self-deprecatory, as in his account of taking 36 photos of Nehru to find that all were “abominable blurs”, since he had forgotten to align the lens with the rangefinder.
All across the arts — with the possible exception only of music — the most talented tend to be the most self-absorbed. The best painters, like Picasso, or the best writers, like V. S. Naipaul, are often bereft of generosity and compassion. Not Sunil Janah, however. He was a superb photographer who was also a very fine human being. His kindness to me, personally, was in keeping with his capacious appreciation of humanity as a whole. His talent is reflected in his portraits; his character, in his words. Consider thus these reflections from the essay that accompanies Photographing India.
Janah on pluralism: “Cultural diversity enriches life in any country and the use of religion, race, or native language, rather than domicile, as the defining identity for a state, and as a criterion for full citizenship, is a recipe for civil strife and for abominations like ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide.”
Janah on attitudes towards beauty and sex, past and present: “In the past, our civilization… embraced and rejoiced in all aspect of being human. It did not denigrate the erotic and the sensual in any way. The killjoy aspects of more than one culture, had, later, been inflicted on our people. Over a long period of time, the influence of Islam, which veiled and segregated women, and of the Christianity of the Victorian British, whose code of decency dictated that the legs of even their furniture be draped, had reversed the traditions of a culture that had never regarded sex or the human body as shameful.”
Photographing India has some nice paragraphs on the person who brought me to Sunil Janah, the maverick anthropologist, Verrier Elwin. These are readable enough, but better still are some remarks from an essay on Elwin that he published in the Times Higher Education Supplement in 1999. Here Janah writes: “Elwin rarely talked about his intimate feelings. I remember an evening when he was not well and I was visiting him in his Calcutta flat. He told me that, despite the weariness we cannot escape in the culture that we live in, we can have our moments of exultation and moments of great peace. As long as we know that we shall experience these again and again unexpectedly, the darker tunnels of misery and despair we may go through do not diminish our faith that life, even for a tormented person, can be wonderful and joyous.”
Janah’s own life was sometimes tormented and sometimes joyous. In spite of the hard times he passed through, the early optimism of his communist years never fully left him. At the end of his life, Janah wrote — in words that should be pasted on the study or studio of every writer and photographer:
“The world has not become any better. There are battlefields, hatred and guns around us. It is a sad, depressing world, but it is the only world we have. Irrespective of whatever messages words or pictures may convey, they rarely bring about immediate change in the minds and hearts of people. But they make people think, which, over a period of time, leads to social and political changes. So it is always worth one’s while to write that article, paint that picture, or take that photograph.”
Shortly before the Janahs died, I spoke with them over the phone. I asked whether I could approach the government of India to have Sunil’s negatives and prints transferred to his homeland. Sobha said that both of them hoped very much that this would happen, but wanted to make sure they would be kept properly. I passed their wish on to an excellent joint secretary in the ministry of culture; she was keen to pursue the project, but sadly was replaced soon afterwards. Knowing how the government works — or does not work — it may need a generous minded philanthropist to bring the archive of this remarkable Indian back to the land that he so loved and enriched.