Photographer Sunil Janah has been called “a faithful servant of history” but perhaps he’s best remembered as a ‘philanthropologist’ — portmanteau of philanthropist and anthropologist. Janah was 94 when he breathed his last in June 2012. In a career spanning over six decades, Janah meticulously documented the events that shaped India — and they were often the only documentation of their kind. A lot has been spoken about his photographs which showed the gnawing truth of the disastrous Bengal famine in 1942. But Chatterjee and Lal, one of Mumbai’s youngest yet most prominent art galleries, recently presented Janah’s often overlooked works.
The exhibition titled ‘A Modern Vision’ has brought back Janah’s powerful images in black and white, and with it the country’s journey to modernisation from the 1940s to the 1960s. Janah started his freelancing work in 1948. After stints with The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Statesman, and an assignment commissioned by The Calcutta Port Authority, he did ‘a spate of assignments covering some of the country’s major industrial and development ventures in eastern India.’
In Janah’s own words, “It began with a regular job of taking photographs every month of the worksites in the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC). It had been set up to build dams and power plants, at various sites on the flood-prone Damodar River, to generate electricity and control floods. The World Bank had helped finance the projects and demanded monthly progress reports with photographs.”
Janah kept getting assignments from other industrial projects. “The Directorate of Audio-Visual Publicity (DAVP), New Delhi, wanted me to photograph, both in black and white and in colour, all the development projects in the eastern sector under the Government of India’s first Five Year Plan. These were to be Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘New Temples’ of modern India,” he writes in his book Photographing India.
The photographer, who realised that he was ‘unwittingly’ becoming an industrial photographer, was taken in by how the industrial structures were being manually built by the “primitive villagers and tribals carrying cement mixtures in pails on their heads at the worksites, where giant steel piles were being driven into the ground by even bigger machines and monstrous earth-moving machines were roaring around…”
He called his images a “symbol of prying curiosity”. Janah also wrote that having photographed the steel mills earlier, he found that he had over the years collected an extensive range of photographs “of whatever was turning the wheels of the country’s economy,” without purposely setting out to do so.