Sunil Janah: Photographing People

The second of three articles on photographer Sunil Janah

Read the previous post here

Guest Author: Sourajit Saha

Ethnographic studies came hand in hand with colonialism in India. Many examples can be found in colonial art, sometimes even commissioned by the British, of the ethnographic studies of contemporary Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries. Franz Balthazar Solvyn’s etchings come to mind instantly. Solvyn, a Flemish painter titled his 288 etchings ‘Les Hindoos’, which comprised an exhausting collection of natives of different classes, castes, and gender. These etchings were of myriad people, all portraits interestingly set in the environment of their work or living.  In 1861, local governments took the initiative of gathering photographs of tribes and different castes for an exhibition in Calcutta.1 An exhibition was organized to acquaint the British public in India with the unseen and unknown natives. Photography in the British era thus played an important part in the consolidation of a colonial state.

Sunil Janah also photographed the people of India, mainly the tribals, on his various visits to the countryside as the Communist Party photographer. ‘He visually documented the ethnography of the country in a way that nobody had really done before. He went from one remote corner of the country to another,’ his son, Arjun Janah, said in an interview with Kamla Bhatt.2 These photographs, though very much ethnographic in nature, were far from the ethnographic photography of the British era. These were photos of people portrayed in their usual demeanor—photographed while going to work or working in their workplaces. The inclusion of the space, their natural habitat, gave the photographs a geographical context and the people their identity. They were not mere specimens, photographed only to serve as evidence to the unacquainted Western eye.

When asked by Siddhartha Ghosh in an interview, Sunil Janah admitted that though he started photographing the common people including the tribals while on various Communist party assignments in pre and post-Partition India, he continued even after he stopped being a party member. This interest was sustained due to his contact with Dr. Verrier Elwin, a renowned ethnologist. In the same interview with Ghosh, Janah said, ‘I identified myself with Verrier’s way of looking at the tribes’3. He even worked for Elwin and these assignments helped in cementing his interest in the tribals for life. Later on, whenever he would get time, Janah travelled to remote locations, villages, or hamlets where these communities resided. He claimed to have spent several years with them to understand these tribals and also to acquaint them with a ‘foreigner’ like him. The acquaintance reached such levels that he was referred to as ‘Dada’, ‘Kaka’ – common words in the local language to address someone they knew. He was treated as a long-lost friend whenever he returned to these tribal villages.4 Janah photographed the tribals and the village people mostly smiling. These lively portraits are definitely different from both the objective depictions of people in ethnographic photographs and the photojournalistic depictions of distressed and sad Indians. ‘Here is the other. Here are happy Indians, plump and smiling and proud with life. These people’s lives have their full share of sorrow but here they are shown in their more merry moods since almost everywhere else they have been shown only miserable’5 writes Kim Christen in a fitting essay to Janah’s first published photobook ‘The Second Creature’. These photographs are also proof of the genuine love and esteem that Janah had for these indigenous people. Janah opines that ‘unless you have empathy for the subject you cannot even produce a good portrait.’6 This gaze hence doesn’t align with the sympathetic visuals of photojournalism. It tells the audience that joy and mirth do exist in the lives of these ordinary Indians as well. Janah credits his long-time acquaintance with these people as the main reason for bringing out these genuine expressions and moments of their lives. These aren’t ‘fleeting’ moments of the photojournalist but the result of lived experiences.

Janah’s images of the tribal community in their usual attire which were mostly bare bodied caused a furore amongst the Indian government officials when some prints of these photos came under scrutiny while going through the customs for an exhibition in London. In the same interview with Ghosh, Janah gives an account of how he was harassed by government officials to the extent of a prosecution cry for his depictions of nude tribal women.7 He had to appeal to the then Prime Minister Ms. Indira Gandhi with whose intervention he could get back some prints of his photographs. Certain incidents like these might be the reason for him not having exhibited his exhaustive archive of images often. It truly is a shame that Janah was repeatedly accused of obscenity in spite of his honest documentation of the indigenous communities of our nation. A country that lacks a culture of documentation might not value the importance of such a massive work of documentation of the indigenous people of a nation as diverse as ours. But Janah’s work shall remain – for newer generations to discover and perhaps, truly appreciate the care and empathy of the photographer.


  1. Camera Indica, Christopher Pinney, p. 28-29
  2. Swaraj Archive: Link
  3. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 348
  4. Ibid., p.348
  5. The Second Creature, Sunil Janah, p.13
  6. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 348
  7. Siddhartha Ghosh, Chhobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha (Taking Photographs: A History of Bengali Photographic Practices), p. 353

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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