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Belly dancers by Sunil Janah
Lyn and Lys, Egyptian Belly Dancers © Sunil Janah, Eastern Hotel, Calcutta | Image source internet

Sunil Janah

Sunil Janah (1918 – 2012) was an Indian photojournalist and documentary photographer. He captured history in the making, documenting the people’s struggles against colonialism and the emergence of independent India after 1947. Born in Assam in 1918, Sunil Janah was educated at St. Xavier’s and Presidency colleges in Calcutta. Photography was a hobby until he came to prominence for the pictures of the Bengal Famine he had taken as a journalist in 1943. A man-made disaster, caused by the diversion of India’s food grains to the British army on the Eastern Front during the Second World war, the famine was further escalated by the insatiable greed of black-marketers and hoarders. It served to intensify, further, the anger which drove the movement for independence. Sunil Janah’s photographs convey the full horror of the famine, without compromising the dignity and individuality of those who suffered.

He went on to document most aspects of the Independence movement and Partition, capturing, on the one hand, historic moments in the lives of leaders such as Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah, and, on the other, portraying the reality of the mass movements of the period, sensitive and moving studies of individual participants as well as panoramic and often breathtaking images of a people on the march. Sunil Janah witnessed and photographed the Indian partition, which triggered the violence and mass migrations of people across the newly defined borders of India and West and East Pakistan. It was during this time that he met and worked with Margaret Bourke White, who came to India on an assignment for Life magazine.

From then on, Sunil Janah started photographing the common, mainly rural, people. He became interested in the tribal people of India, an interest sustained by his friendship with Verrier Elwin, a renowned ethnologist working for, and among, the tribals of India. The photographs that Janah took of these people, living in remote hills and forests, are, probably, the most remarkable of his later phase. In the 1950s, Sunil Janah was commissioned to photograph the symbols of rapid industrialization then taking place, highlighting the mood of optimism that characterized the period. In course of this, he produced some striking pictures of industrial workers. In ‘People’s War’ and after that ‘People’s Age’ Janah used to have one page for a photo feature for which he photographed the lives of ordinary people, their struggles, the beauty of the working class at work, rowing boats, catching fish, in coal mines, from men and women working in homes and fields to bow and arrow carrying tribals, farmers and workers heading to protest, revolutionaries of Telangana and via these photographs he established the Communist Party’s ideology and commitment amongst the people. His portraits of well-known people like Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Sheikh Abdullah, Faiz, J. Krishnamurthi, are very famous.

Published on February 21, 2021
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