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Dream Whirligig, And Com Joshi's Lensman

One is a living, dancing choreography on art paper. The other a sweeping, solemn document of a grainy epoch—of a country's contortions at a sudden bend of history.

Dream Whirligig, And Com Joshi's Lensman
Dream Whirligig, And Com Joshi's Lensman
Photographing India
By Sunil Janah
Oxford University Press | Pages: 302 | Rs. 3,995
By Shobha Deepak Singh Curated & Edited by Alka Pande
Roli Books | Pages: 256 | Rs. 2,500

Dancescapes by Shobha Deepak Singh is an aggregation of many years of dedication to documenting dance as a personal passion. From her early days with Roliflex and Yashica cameras to 1972, when she was using a “Nikon 50 mm lens with a high speed of 1.4”, to the 80-200 zoom lens “lavished” as a gift in 1978 by her husband, to her present-day use of the vibrant colour palette—it is a rich tapestry of the visual history of Indian classical and modern dance.

There are essentially three kinds of photographs in this book—straightforward portraiture; scene depiction from dance productions; and abstracts. The abstract works appeal to me the most, and I feel therein lies Shobha’s strongest works—they are a veritable cauldron of colour and shape, interplay of stage illumination and form.

In a personal piece, photographer Dilip Mehta writes, “the blurring of the hands, the convulsing of the body, the swirling of hair were mistakes,” as revealed by Shobha Deepak Singh herself. Her approach to photography seems spontaneous and persevering, clearly displaying her long-term unfl­i­nching dedication to her own art, which in the words of Alkazi was done with “dogged and indefatigable persistence”. There are moments when she captures movement and light that almost is dreamlike—a ghaghra swi­rl­ing with backlight coming thr­­ough the fabric; swishing long-exposure lines of dancers’ limbs taking on painterly sha­pes (one surprisingly like a ‘Man­tis’); swirling swathes of colour weaving an unusual rainbow of fractal hues—these are pieces of photo-art as opposed to documentary photo-journalism.

The curating and editing of the book have been executed thoughtfully and intelligently—for this Alka Pande should take the honours. Her use of well-chosen text, contextualising the photographs within the larger fabric of Indian art history, and of bold walls of white, black and raspberry-red as backdrops are arresting. These aspects are just as important as the original ima­ges—as it is in this correlation of the physicality of presentation and framing that the artist’s dreamscapes find ground.

Janah's attic in Calcutta, taken when he was 13

Sunil Janah’s masterly works in Photographing India, on the other hand, are grounded in a grainy, black-and-white reality. It is a gritty reality of a different kind of landscape and time- frame, anchored firmly in socio-documentation. One of India’s pre-eminent photojournalists, Sunil Janah died last year at 94, leaving behind a rich repertoire of valuable images. They span across early compositional frames, such as the attic of his Calcutta home taken at age 13. In this photograph, the louvered colonial windows, skylights and door allow the artificial, possibly electric, light in the attic out in parallel expanding perspectival strips like rail-tracks, though the journey is arrested in one startling frame of acute, haunting quality. This is one of Janah’s rare photographs where human beings are absent.

Janah's mise-en-scene contains both the raw innocence of the moment and the gravitas of the subject matter and its histories.

Most of Janah’s photos—many early ones taken as a Communist Party member touring famine-hit Bengal and other provinces with CPI general secretary P.C. Joshi for the party journal People’s War—contain human tragedy and sociopolitical turmoil. There is one shot from the afte­rmath of the Partition of a child with a parrot and dog in a refugee hut. It is a powerful image that marries innocence and destruction, hope and futility, all soaked in familial longing. The bamboo stilts holding up the thatched roof act as two vertical lines providing a strong visual anchor for both the child’s posture and the photo’s overall composition. Then there are the famous, heart-wrenching images of the Bengal famine and working-class Bombay tenements of the 1940s. One of a mother and child has two shafts of angular light highlighting their plight. Like the fields of Golgotha, the eerie images of carcass, skeleton, skull and the dead loom large. One shot in 1944 of the Tonk movement by the Hajang tribals uses unconventional frame-division with power—only the bottom one-fourth of the photograph has turbulent action of people running on feet-stirred sand with sticks; while one of the protesters holding a Com­munist flag on a very long bamboo pole pierces the sky that inhabits three-fourths of the seemingly empty frame.

In contrast, the bucolic images of India’s Northeast and rural Bengal bear a happier demeanour, as do those of dancers in elegant stage poses and of leading poets in sharp profiles. There are brooding portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru in his Allahabad residence, of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the ‘Frontier Gandhi’), and most prominent leaders of that era such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bose, Patel, Ambedkar, and others.

Sunil Janah’s photographs also act like film-noir sets. He creates his mise-en-scene with the light touch of a genius, one that contains in its fold both the raw innocence of the moment and the gravitas of the subject matter and its histories. The industrial photographs, with defining angular lines and the interplay of contrasting light and shadow, are ominously strong and steely. One is grateful to the master artist in Janah and for his hugely embl­ematic important contribution to Indian photography.

Sudeep Sen is a poet and photographer whose books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (editor), and Prayer Flag



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