Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Was Sunil Janah a Great Photographer? Or is it all Made Up?

(Sunil Janah 1918-2012)

History is always the slave of greatness. It is there to serve the master who is great or tipped to be one. Have you ever thought how we recognize great masters from any field? We see them, understand them and even wonder at them because they are the chosen people of history. And history is a loyal but blind servant. It fails to see other people with talent and it is so loyal to the great masters that it even casts aspersions over the other great people visiting its household. This helps us to take all the modern masters with a pinch of salt. I do not intend to say that their greatness is questionable; but I do intend to say that they are history’s darlings. How can I question the greatness of Picasso or Ram Kinkar Baij? But I should also say that they were in the right place at the right time so that history could aid them to cross over the turbulent waters of the river of Time.

(Indrani Rahman by Sunil Janah)

This line, ‘Right man in the right place at the right time’ comes repeatedly in Ram Rahman’s narrative on the three hundred odd photographs by the late photographer Sunil Janah, secured by Delhi’s art collector, Vijaya Kumar Aggarwal. This photography collection was kept in his Swaraj Art Archive in Noida and it would have remained there for long had it not been found out by chance by the photographer and activist, Ram Rahman. Though Aggarwal had not recognised the beautiful woman in one of the photographs, which he thought of displaying at his home, Ram Rahman could not have failed to recognize her. It was his mother, Indrani Rahman, who was a well known dancer and social activist. This chance finding took him to the collection of photographs and today it is a book and an exhibition, which is currently on in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art.

(belly dancers by Sunil Janah)

Great photographers in India or in other words, the photographers whom we consider vintage today were/are lucky men who had the rare chance of handling a camera in their early days itself. In a vast country like India, the number of people who could afford a camera around hundred and fifty years back was almost nil. With the British came the proliferation of photographic equipment and interest here and it was a serious occupation for the early photographers like Raja Deen Dayal who commanded royal patronage for their works. Royal and feudal assistance was a pre-requisite for pursuing photography and only those people who could afford a camera and had the passion for developing photographs could pursue a career in it. Though amateur photography clubs were started by 1857 in India, the members were from the aristocratic families. For women, it was a pastime and like the brown skinned Indian servants assisted the men in hunting, aristocratic women were waited upon by Indian servants in their photographic expeditions. 

(Sunil Janah, Margaret Bourke-White and Rangekar in 1945)

Looking back, we could see the three sixty degree revolution happened in the use of photography as a creative and communicative medium. The erstwhile aristocratic, therefore hegemonic and hierarchic activity has now melted all its socio-cultural and economic barriers and has come handy to anybody who could afford to buy a mobile phone fitted with a camera. When Sunil Janah came to the scene in 1930s and became active since 1940s there were not too many photographic practitioners who involved in social work or politics. For Sunil Janah, it was not just a chosen vocation but a mission given to him by one his mentors, P.C. Joshi, leader of the undivided Communist Party of India. As a literature student in the Presidency College in Calcutta, Sunil Janah was not contemplating a career in photography when he was asked to document the Bengal Famine in 1943. Janah left his studies half and took the plunge in political activism as a photographer along with Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, the master printmaker and illustrator of the time. Sunil Janah after his party work in different places including Bombay and Delhi, left for Calcutta in late 1940s, disillusioned by the Communist Party, only to be attracted to the nation building efforts of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He took up the UNO’s project to photograph the tribes in the South East Asian countries.

 (Book cover of Sunil Janah)

Sunil Janah is famous for his political photographs that include the photographs taken during his communist days and the Nehruvian days. But the present body of work falls in between, a period from 1940 to 1960s. As I mentioned at the outset, this collection as a book and also an exhibition is an occasion to problematise these works done by Janah. Here Janah does not come across as a man who was really compassionate about his subjects as he had done in his activist photographs. This view however does not intend to show Janah in poor light. What makes me curious is Janah’s own choice of selecting, publishing and exhibiting a major portion of these works in 1948 itself. In 1948, he published ‘Second Creature’, predominantly comprising of the pictures of the semi-nude pictures of the Malabar women peasants (somehow he stumps Simone de Beauvoir who published Second Sex in 1949). In 1993 he came out with the ‘The Tribals of India’. Though there are other books on the works of Janah, I would like to take these two books as a backdrop to discuss this body of works currently curated and exhibited by Ram Rahman.

(photograph by Sunil Janah)

Sunil Janah was a privileged photographer on two counts. He became a photographer because he had a camera and also had trained in making photographic prints by the veteran photographer Shambhu Shaha. He decided to leave his studies and plunge into photography because he had the blessing of the party’s top leadership. Now, we cannot say that the Communist Party was a rich party as we see today. It was a party which was still in struggle with the Congress. As a party of the peasants and workers, the Communist artists were looking the life and times of these works. Poverty was the bench mark and it was a touchstone to test the humanism of any activist. Janah went headlong in documenting poverty and it was not just a documentation but loaded with ideological issues including international diplomacy and war time positioning of the party. Interestingly, immediately after the Bengal Famine, Janah seems to have been deputed to Kerala, especially in Malabar which was still a part of Madras Presidency, where he started documenting the peasant women.

(Malabar -peasant women by Sunil Janah)

The semi clad women with their upper torso completely exposed to the gaze of the photographer as well as the onlooker, could easily be seen through a feminist’s eyes and accused the artist of making incursions into their ‘bodies’. Of course there is an aspect of male gaze in these photographs but we have to ask which photograph is not the result of a gaze, male, female or the third gender. A photograph is the product of a gaze and there is no doubt about it. However, when we look at these works of Janah, we come to know that the artist was facing a no alternative situation on the one hand and an extremely enjoyable scene on the other. There was no alternative because the women peasants in Malabar (or women in Kerala in general) were not allowed to wear blouses or anything that covered their upper bodies. For a peasant, whether male or female a loin cloth was the maximum dress allowed by the society. The feudal systems operational in those days did not allow women to wear upper clothes. It was the privilege of the land lord to enjoy their ‘breasts’. Only women from the Brahmin castes were allowed to cover their upper bodies. In Malabar, all the lower castes including the Nairs were not allowed to cover their breasts. From 19th century to 1960s there were social struggles to gain right for women to cover their breasts. There used to be tax (mulakkaram- breast tax) imposed upon those who wore upper garments.

(Malabar peasant by Sunil Janah)

Seen against this backdrop, we understand that Sunil Janah was not intentionally looking at the bare breasted women for the pleasure of gaze. However, we feel the kind of relief that Janah enjoyed after documenting the pathetic scenes in Bengal famine for a long time. This part of Malabar was a welcoming respite for Janah and he seems to have revelled in this new found land of bare breasted beauties. There are two pictures that I would like to bring in for discussion because Janah makes this constant effort to edit his pictures differently, with and without certain figures, which in fact give away the ‘male’ in Janah. He more or less becomes Gaugin in Tahiti, as rightly pointed out by Ram Rahman (but in a different sense). In one of the pictures we see a group of women in their natural habitat of work. There are two women on the left side of the frame and they are fully clad in a ‘modern way’. But the gaze is upon the semi clad woman turning her gaze towards her right, showing no interest in photography. In another print, Janah edits the well dressed women on the left and focus is given completely on the semi clad woman who just does not counter gaze at the photographer. In another photograph, Janah edits the background of Kerala out and juxtaposes the nude figure with an exotic landscape and takes a final print. Here the intention of the artist is pretty much clear; more than documenting the peasant women in a communist party context, here we see a young man thoroughly enjoying the platter of breasts spread out before him. Communist affiliation in fact does not reduce anybody’s male tendencies.

(Santal boys by Sunil Janah)

Let’s take these women who are mostly willing subjects. They do not have any problem in posing semi naked because they are semi naked in their normal life. There is no other point of reference for them to feel ashamed of their semi nudity. The women who are clad in the same frame are from the Muslim community and they are as good as outcastes. The dresses that they wear are an aberration as far as the semi naked women are concerned. It is not that they peasants are unaware of the struggles around breasts and blouses going on in their land. We cannot write out the influence of communism amongst the working class and Malabar region remains to be one of the strong holds of the communist party even today. But what interests me is their happy poses, which is not intimidated by the presence of the man with a camera. Here the tension of the photographer is palpable as he monumentalize their presence as in the posters from Soviet Union (the reason Ram Rahman cites as his familiarity with the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, the legendary film makers in the revolutionary Russia), with their upturned noses and nipples; Janah struggles to hold the camera straight whereas the girls do not even acknowledges his greatness. They are natural. Here is the confrontation of two cultures; one is thoroughly informed of the urban-rural divide and ideology pertaining to male-female participation in the social progress, and the nature which is yet reluctant to receive that culture.

 (Bengal Famine by Sunil Janah)

Janah’s interest in working with the semi clad women continues to the point of obsession when he takes of the United National project to document tribals and also develops an anthropological interest in documenting the tribals in India itself. His association with the American photographer, Margarete Bourke –White who was in India for a Life Magazine assignment in 1945 and his sharing of her flash lights have become a part of the lore of both the photographers. But I would like to say that even if Janah was a communist to begin with, being a photographer he always stood at the side of power. His disillusionment with the Communist party led him to Nehru’s ‘progressive’ measures and he went on to photograph factories and dams. Was it simply a career move? Janah, as an artist, after the communist days, decided to travel with the dominant and the powerful. His experience in documenting the famine and the national leaders as well as common peasants came handy in getting assignments not only from the government of India but also from the United Nations and other international agencies. Janah was a man in the right place at the right time. The greatness of his photography is assisted by history. He became the darling of history because there were not too many to pursue the same career path at that time.

 (work by Sunil Janah)

I would like to close this essay with the following questions that came to my mind while going through the works of Sunil Janah and curated by Ram Rahman. Had there been more photographers at that time could Janah become a celebrated photographer as we see today? Had he not been given assignments by various powerful national and international agencies, what could have been his works in those years? Hasn’t his communist affiliation and the works that he had done between 1940 and 1950 justified the later works which are fine documents but really not great photographs? The more I look at the works of Janah’s the more I become aware of his purism which he himself had accepted. What he aspired for was a clean photograph not a photograph that showed various moods within a picture. His narrative was already set and it was authorial in nature. The later works of his seem to be of less significance for critical views and their significance would be justified by the author’s name that goes with them. 

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