Sunil Janah: Photographing a Modern Nation

The third of three articles on photographer Sunil Janah

Read the previous post here

Guest Author: Sourajit Saha

On Nehru’s death in 1964, the New York Times referred to the first Prime Minister of India as ‘the maker of modern India’.1 Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, a central figure of India’s Independence movement, was inspired by socialist ideas and hated Imperialism from his formative days at Cambridge. He knew that a nation that was riddled with poverty and overpopulation needed a major makeover to survive in a post World War world. Thus, he formulated five-year plans and began an era of development in the fields of science, technology, architecture, and agriculture. He invited the visionary architect Le Corbusier who realised the entire urban design of the city of Chandigarh in the 1950s. Later came Charles Correa, who studied at MIT and worked under Minoru Yamasaki, the designer of the World Trade Center in NYC. Correa’s Gandhi Ashram was a pivotal building in amalgamating Western architectural principles with Indian traditionality. The modernist approach to Indian architecture was believed to be brought by the British, like any Western thought at that time (early 20th century). Influence of the Bauhaus came to India post-Independence due to the arrival of Le Corbusier and a host of Indian architects who came back with degrees from America like Habib Rahman from MIT, who studied under Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus school, Achyut Kanvinde from Harvard, or Gautam Sarabhai who worked with Wright in Taliesin.2 The foundations of most of the important Central government institutions like the IITs, IIMs, NITs, AIIMS, and BARC were laid in the 1950s under the aegis of Nehru and these architects were responsible for designing these centers of learning. Architecture played an important role in shaping the look of a new nation progressing on the wheel of modernization.

Jawaharlal Nehru in Anand Bhavan, his family residence in Allahabad, 1939

Geeta Kapur in her collection of essays published under the title ‘When was Modernism?’ addressed this crucial question in the context of Indian art history. She attributed the arrival of modernism in India to the realization of freedom, a sense of freedom that came with the thought amongst Indians to be free, free from the colonial powers being one of them. Kapur argues, ‘the characteristic feature of Indian modernism, as perhaps of many postcolonial modernisms, is that it is manifestly social and historical’—rather than being posited, as in the West, as ‘a hypostasis of the new’.3 Thus, it wasn’t something new, rather it was a reconstruction of the social and historical image of the great nation which started in the first decade of the 20th century but received a renewed fervour due to the freedom from the shackles of long-existing colonial rule.

Sunil Janah tried to capture this reconstruction of the nation which saw the construction of buildings, factories, and industries. Through his superbly well-composed black and white photographs of steel plants of Bhilai and Rourkela and coal mines of Bihar, ports, mills, automobile factories, and construction of railroads and dams, he chronicled the rapid changes taking place in the decade following Independence. A recent exhibition of these very industrial photographs at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata, exactly a decade after his death in 2012, was titled Making a Photograph. Sunil didn’t just ‘make’ photographs, he made photographs of ‘Making India’. The concept of ‘Make in India’ isn’t a new concept as can be seen by these photographs. Hence, these images become even more important documents in the current context where the political regime is determined in the erasure of historical records and demolition of Nehru’s legacy.

Apart from these photos being important artifacts of Indian history, they are remarkable images despite lacking the instant impact of the grotesque imagery of the Bengal famine. Ram Rahman, a renowned photographer (son of Habib Rahman, the architect), as a part of a discussion on the exhibition organized by the Experimenter gallery, remarks, ‘When we look at the whole range of Janah’s works, it can be seen that he had different styles depending on what he was doing. His studio portraits and political pictures are very different from each other. The style of his industrial pictures is very different from all other works. Depending on the subject, he adopted different ways to photograph them.’4 These are indeed striking images, primarily consisting of machines and enormous steel structures, shot with extreme precision and developed with the thought of a certain style in mind — certain images having more shadows and blacks giving them a low-key feel. These images are mostly long shots of machines and structures unlike the close or mid-close shots of refugees of the Bengal famine or the portraits of political figures, dancers, or artists constituting different grammar and aesthetics altogether, showcasing the versatility of the photographer. It is interesting to note here, that he not only captured the machines but the men as well. Few of the photos also feature workers working in the factories and there are a few exclusive portraits of the workers, without the machines. This only evinces the fact that the spirit of communism in him didn’t forget the most important element of industrialization – the workers whose sweat and labour keep the industries running.

Ram Rahman says that Janah was ‘at the right place at the right time’. Indeed, Janah will remain the mammoth of a photographer who documented every important incident and individual in the immediate pre- and post-colonial times of our nation. Rahman opines that ‘At each stage of his photography career, Janah produced a huge body of work. Any one of these could be the whole work of a major photographer. But Janah had all these in his single life.’5 Indeed, one can only remain in awe, and do what is perhaps the greatest form of tribute to the artist – keep remembering and discussing his works.


  1. The Wire: Link
  2. Northern Architecture: Link
  3. Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism? Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000), p. 298.
  4. Photomail: Link

Sourajit Saha works as a software engineer by day and lives as a cinephile 24/7. With interests in visual arts and history, he aspires to become a filmmaker one day.

Read more articles by Sourajit here.

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