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Imaging India


A recently concluded photo exhibition of the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sunil Janah and Shambhu Shaha helped viewers in the Capital rediscover India through a rich collection of rare pictures
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: December 1, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Discovering India | Shakeel Hossain | |

Last month Delhites were taken a visual journey through the history of India’s freedom struggle and the making of a modern nation. Photographs by three master photographers were put up in an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, and titled (Re) Discovering India:Then and Now.


“The old enchantment seems to be breaking to-day and she (India) is looking around and waking up to the present. But however she changes, as change she must, that old witchery will continue and hold the hearts of her people. Though her attire may change, she will continue as old, and her store of wisdom will help to hold on to what is true and beautiful and good in this harsh, vindictive and grasping world”.


Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister wrote this in the conclusion of “The Discovery of India”, when he was imprisoned during 1942-46 at Ahmednagar Fort.


The month long photo exhibition curated by US based renowned curator and photo connoisseur, Shakeel Hossain is inspired by this insight of Nehru and by the images of India documented by three photographers’ evoked similar sentiments.


“The exhibition explores the dichotomy of India once again, which is seemingly innate in any reflection of it. The exhibition thematically presents the photographs of Shambhu Shaha, Sunil Janah, and Henri Cartier Bresson as a photo journey of India,” says Hossasin.


The exhibition had five themes - Dawns of Freedom, Personalities and Ideologies, People and Places, Traditions and Trades and Despair and Hope. These images travel in tune with the social and political themes of the nation and aptly establish the moods of the photographers then. The exhibition presented a collection of Photographs from the cultural archives of IGNCA and the photographs were displayed in the original formats as framed by their intentions.


The photographs of the trio explore various aspects of dichotomies and more. But who were these photographers who have enriched the history with their works?


In (Re) Discovering India Now and Then-the photo journeys of Shambhu Shaha, Sunil Janah and Henri Cartier Bresson is well connected by their works of documenting of some of the most important years, events and personalities of Indian history. In this have gifted the country with photographs with the memories of growing up in an era of global changes-the effects of war, colonisation and its consequences, famine victims, hapless refugees, and hardships faced by people etc


Yet they knew how to keep alive the beauty of culture and talk through photographs.


Going through the exhibition one can point out through several differences among these three lens men. Both Shaha and Janah were Bengalis while Bresson was French. Janah’s work is more than political than Shaha.


They relied more on the aesthetic aspect of photography. Bresson is from a place which has no connection to ethos to the sense of India. However they are all combined and connected by their love of lens.


Before exploring photography and its technicalities Shambhu Shah (1905-1988) first learned painting under the artist Hemachandra Kanungo. Shaha’s work is more focussed on India’s national poet Rabindranath Tagore and his idyllic Visva Bharti to include other aspects of the newly independent India. From the rise of Nehruvian industries to candid photographs of busy streets in Calcutta, Shaha has captured different colours of India through his lens.


Among his works were portraits that he took. An enthusiastic practitioner of candid photography, Shaha’s portraits were of well-known as well as common people, for instance Tagore at the morning tea table, painter Nirode Mazumdar, Balraj Sahni and his wife Damayanti, young Indira Gandhi at Shanti Niketan, Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur and painter Jamini Roy and empty vessels and the women and refugees from East Pakistan in 1970. Through his art he captured them with their unrehearsed, real emotions. Throughout his career Shaha worked on variety of themes and subjects, all of it connected by the love of his art, devoid of any intention to impose his thoughts.


Sunil Janah (1918-2012) stumbled on to photography thanks to a Kodak Box Brownie camera he got as a gift from his grandmother. Largely self-taught, he was guided by the veteran photographer, Shambhu Saha, as a young man, before being appointed by the then general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), P.C. Joshi, as the official photographer for the party’s newspaper, People’s War.


Joshi called Janah and asked him to accompany him on a tour of famine hit parts of India.


Both travelled all over Bengal with Joshi writing and Janah taking photographs."It was very distressing because I felt like doing things other than taking photographs. The camera is, of course, a kind of symbol of prying curiosity. People were starving and dying and I was holding a camera to their faces, intruding into their suffering and grief. I envied people who were involved in relief work because they were at least doing something to relieve the people's distress. It was a very harrowing experience, but I also felt that I had to take photographs. There had to be a record of what was happening, and I would do it with my photographs,” Janah had confessed later in an interview.


Janah later recorded starvation deaths in Orissa. Travelling throughout the country Janah photographed local people in their villages and cities as they are and not under when they are under a grim shadow. This was to become another aspect social and ethnographic documentation of diversity of India


Known for his work on both pre and post independence turmoil, Janah was sought out by Ms. Bourke-White, a photographer with Life magazine who brought images from India’s independence movement to American homes.


Along with the devastating truth of the Bengal Famine of 1940’s he also documented the turbulent aftermath of the Partition of India in 1947, which was later published in Bourke-White’s book Halfway to Freedom.


Assignments with United Nations in 1950’s took him to various global hot spots and in 1972 he was awarded Padmashri. Janah had shifted his base to United Kingdom during 80’s and last year he passed away. His book Photographing India has left behind a window to the photographer and the person he was.


Henri Cartier Bresson (1908-2004) is the most celebrated photographer of all times and was an artist who revolutionized his art of immortalising people and their emotions. Bresson relationship began with painting training under noted cubist artist Lhothe Audre.


A key influence upon Cartier-Bresson was the Hungarian photographer, Martin Munkacsi, who wrote: 'to see in a thousandth of a second that which the ordinary person passes without notice — this is the theory of photo reporting. And to photograph what we see during the next thousandth of a second — that is the practical side of photo reporting.
From 1936 to 1939, he worked as an assistant to the film director Jean Renoir (Renoir, Jean) in the production of Une Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) for the communist party and La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game).


The importance he gave to sequential images in still photography may be attributed to his preoccupation with film.


Bresson also experimented to see how it felt to be on the other side of the camera, film director Jean Renoir put Henri in a few films. He was in the 1939 film Partie de campagne and in 1939 La Regle du jeu. Cartier-Bresson helped Renoir with 2 films for the Communist party on 200 families, one which showed in France. And during the Spanish civil war with Herbert Klein, Henri co-directed an anti-fascist film to promote the Republican medical services. There were also a number of films in France who compiled photographs by Henri from 1956 thru to 1997.


His first photojournalist photos were published in the French weekly Regards when he covered the coronation of King George VI. He then worked as a photographer between 1937 and 1939 for the French Communist paper Ce Soir. In 1947 Henri with David Seymour, Robert Capa and George Rodger founded Magnum Photos. This team of photographers split and covered assignments all over the world.


The assignment with magnum brought Bresson to India at right time to chronicle apostle of Non-Violence and Peace Mahatma Gandhi just much before his assassination. His iconic photographs were of a nation bereaved of its leader and newly found independence. He document of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of announcing the death of Gandhi and final journey and cremation of Mahatma on the banks of Yamuna.


Bresson came to India to document a nation divided by religion and went on to record Nehruvian era of industrialisation and rapid development.


Along with the progressing India, Bresson depicted the other side of India, most-well known of which are his photos of manual labourers at the Trombay Atomic energy plant.


Some of his other well known pictures include Muslim refugee train 1947, crowds wait to pay their last respect to Gandhi as the funeral cortege approaches the cremation ground in 1948, the Bhagwan Maharishi dying of cancer of his ashram in 1950, Indira Gandhi at the Congress in 1966 Session.


According to Hossain the exhibition presents its glory and prides.  Even as displays its intensity and its passion, it equally questions the priorities and directions of modern India as we move rapidly into the global arena governed by economic gain and cultural loss.


How the idea of photo exhibition did came about?


It was while reading India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru's book "The Discovery of India"; US-based Hossain felt the need to rediscover essence of India in its own ways.


 "Back in the USA, we often discuss over formal dinners about India at a crossroad or where to go from here. And while I was reading this book, I realised we might be talking about future, but we have lost traces of our past," Hossain said.


 "The strong need to see what was there and what shaped India to be what it is today is the purpose of this exhibition. At a time when photographs were just a personal collection and not displayed everywhere, the works of these photographers give a window to that era which was glorious," he added.


Padma Shri recipient photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew was the chief guest of the event, and he too, admitted that during his work, spanning over three decades has seen how the country witnessed many changes.


 "The exhibition is a delight for photo connoisseurs," he said, adding that he wished originals were displayed because the quality of an image is distorted when reprinted.


 "It is a treasure trove but I wished they were original. I hope the gallery finds a provision to display them to public as these are the jewels of our country," he said.


 "Quality of original can't be matched with reprints," he added.


As one takes leave of the exhibition one realises that there is nothing unusual to say and accept India lives in many centuries at the same time and one can experience all of mankind here. It would be apt to recall what Mark Twain had said on India: “The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendour and rags, of places and hovels, of famine and pestilence,… the country of hundred nations, a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, … for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land …, by even a glimpse… of all the rest of the world combined”. No wonder these dichotomies have drawn and inspired thinkers, writers and artists; and they continue to do

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017