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Sunil Janah’s Socialism-inspired Images at Biennale Wind Back to Bengal Famine

In Kochi
March 28, 2019

Late photographer Sunil Janah’s work recalls days from the middle of last century when art was intertwined with dreams about socialism and the country saw the emergence of works that were essentially protests triggered by a social unrest following the Great Bengal Famine of 1943.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale displays such images from the 1940s and ’50s that bring out the diversity of three bodies of work from the oeuvre of Assam-born Janah (1918-2012), but avoid his political photos and portraits of major political and cultural figures of the time. At the main Aspinwall House venue of the art festival, the set of visuals, which are reproductions from the collection of the Swaraj Art Archive based in Noida off Delhi, also includes intimate and joyful images of India’s indigenous tribes.

Anita Dube, curator of the fourth edition of the 108-day biennale that ends this week, shares that Janah had a knack of photographing people without being intrusive. “Be it photos of Bengal’s Santhal tribes, the Maria tribes in Bastar, tribes from the North East, the Warli tribes from the Mahar region or peasants from Malabar, they mythologise and celebrate simple everyday life and rituals,” she says.

Janah, who was born in Dibrugarh known for its tea plantations and oil reserves, was brought up in Calcutta when the eastern metropolis was a bastion on Left politics. That brought him close to communist leader P C Joshi, who urged him to take up photography as a profession. Janah, along with artist Chittaprosad Mukherjee, went on to document the Bengal famine that claimed no less than 25 lakh human lives.

“His photograph always had a strong visual aesthetic at play,” says Dube. “The subject or genre didn’t matter; there is a great richness of surface. At the same time, Janah was also empathetic to his subject like the tribals and peasants.” The artist did publish full-page photo features in Left-oriented journals such as People’s War, documenting the life of peasants and working class across the length and breadth of India.

Janah later moved to Bombay and joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association and the Progressive Writers Association, which were hubs of Left-leaning artists, poets and intellectuals at the time. Much later, in 2015, National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai displayed a collection of his select work. Titled ‘Vintage Photographs 1940-1960’, it was organised by the 2012-founded Swaraj Art Archive and curated by photographer Ram Rahman.

Rahman calls Janah’s work as the “defining epic document of the last decade of the freedom struggle and the first decade of free India”. He was a “chronicler of the Nehruvian years.” Janah died in the US, aged 94, after having given up photography in 1980 owing to glaucoma. He had retired to Berkeley in California in 2003, after a quarter century’s stint in London with his family.