The One Who Did Politics With His Camera:
Sunil Janah

Vineet Tiwari

It would have been around November 2010, when we were preparing a booklet containing the simplified draft of our farmers’ study, in time for the annual meeting of the Akhil Bhartiya Kisan Sabha. Jaya Mehta was busy trying to put into a small booklet, in simple words, the complex issues of agriculture in India; issues that we ourselves had spent more than three years in trying to understand. I was typing, as well as translating it into Hindi. We’d called Rajnish from Meerut, and somehow or the other we were trying to prepare a booklet whose statistics did not scare ordinary people, and even those unfamiliar with farming and agriculture could understand the hidden rich-poor divide, as well as the traditional and modern forms of exploitation.

Along with the translation, the job of making the cover and finding poetry to go along with the booklet had fallen into my hands, by an unsaid agreement. While looking for photographs for the cover, my eyes stopped on one black-and-white image thrown up by Google. The photograph was talking. While it was a black-and-white photograph, but the fantastic picture made me understand the deep red colour inside the photographer. It was a 1945 photograph. Farmers from the Jhandewalan village in Punjab, were carrying a flag to the Kisan Sabha conference. Some were old, some young. Some had slippers on their feet, some were bare-footed, but they all had an unusual strength and confidence written on their hands, their feet, their faces.

One of my friends used to say that I’ve become a bull, that every time I see the colour red, I start jumping! But that photograph had a black-and-white flag, yet in my mind I saw it as red and starting jumping. When I got more information on that photograph I patted my own back, as without knowing about the fame of that particular photograph, I had recognised a good photograph. Later I read somewhere that the specialty and power of that photographer is that his photographs have touched and been appreciated by experts like Henri Carter-Bresson, and by ordinary and uninformed people like me.

This photograph was taken by Sunil Janah, who was the photographer of the Communist Party of India in the 1940s. I found a website of his photographs, which in 1998 had been put together painstakingly by his son, Arjun for an exhibition in New York. I found from that, that Sunil Janah was in many respects a unique photographer. From that website I found an email address. With trembling hands I typed an email. Writing to a senior artiste comrade, who was a ‘kivandati’ in his times, to ask for permission use his 65-year old photograph for a small booklet, was a matter of excitement for me.

I got a prompt reply to my email. But not Sunil Janah’s, but his son Arjun’s. He wrote that his mother Shobha Janah and father, Sunil Janah are 83 and 92 years old, respectively. They live in Berkeley, California, while Arjun lives in Brooklyn, New York due to his work. Arjun said that he had sent my email to his parents, and depending upon their state of health, they would reply as and when possible. He also said that he was very happy to read my email.

I didn’t get a response for a week. I sent another mail to Arjun, that the conference deadline was coming closer and the deadline for printing the booklet was approaching in a few days. I requested him to speak to his father on the phone and email us the permission. Arjun replied that he too, was suffering from health problems; however, he felt that since we were not using the photographs for any commercial purpose, therefore he felt that his father would not object to the use of the photographs. So he allowed us to use the photographs from the website.

As soon as I saw this email I called the press. The booklet had gone for printing. An alternative cover had already been printed. We decided that we would print the photograph inside the booklet, along with a write-up on Sunil Janah. The booklet was printed along with Sunil Janah’s photograph.

During this time I exchanged several emails with Arjun. I found through the internet that he writes poetry as well. I read several of his poems in English.

During this a controversy happened that the government announced that they were going to confer the Padmashree to Sunil Janah and while officials were making this announcement they were laughed at since Sunil Janah had already been conferred the Padmashree in 1974!  Eventually the government had to announce that they had mistakenly declared that he would be conferred the Padmashree; they had actually meant to announce that they wanted to confer him with the Padmabhushan. I had thought at that time too that I should email Arjun, but we were quite caught up in our work. There was a long list of to-be-completed tasks, and to this was added the writing of a long email to Arjun Janah.

Then contact more or less broke off. During this time Arjun sent some poems by email. Wanting to read them with the due respect they deserved, I saved them for later. A few days back I read in the newspaper that Sunil Janah passed away on 21st June, 2012.

His photographs of the Bengal Famine were printed in ‘People’s War’, the newspaper of the Communist Party of India at that time. The catastrophe of the Bengal famine that emerged from those photographs, stunned the entire world. That lakhs of people were dying of hunger in Bengal, was not known in many parts of India, let alone the rest of the world. Newspapers, that were the most important source of information and communication at that time, were under the control of the British government, and used to print on their orders. When ‘People’s War’ published Sunil Janah’s photographs and Chittaprasad’s drawings, the whole world’s attention came on to the famine in Bengal. These photographs and drawings were a story in themselves: a powerful story about reality. These pictures were able to tell those who saw them that the famine was not due to no rain, too much rain or any natural catastrophe; but were the result of the British participation in the Second World War and their imperialist, accumulative and inhuman policies that sacrificed the lives of 3.5 lakh poor Indians, to their imperialist lust. These photographs brought the horrifying truth about the Bengal Famine before the world, and this led to a growing anger against the British both within and without India.

In these photographs of the Bengal famine, one can see lines and lines of emaciated, skeleton-like people. These pictures were used as postcards and sent all over the world so that people come to know of the masses of people, struggling with starvation and help was requested for them.

While these photographs of the Bengal famine made Sunil Janah famous throughout the world, the experience was a tragic one for him. How could a person with leftist ideas feel happy that the photographs of living skeletons and people dying of hunger taken by him had made him famous? In an interview in 1988 he said that it was very difficult for him to photograph those dying of hunger, instead of helping them. He said, I was jealous of those comrades and people who did not think of their past or future, but gave all their energies for the help and relief of the starving masses.  I wanted to leave my camera and do the same. However, P.C. Joshi, who had taken me with him to the villages of Bengal and who was my guide, my advisor, my well-wisher, explained to me the significance of documenting the actual condition of the people. With a heavy heart I held up my camera and kept taking photographs.

Later photographs taken by Sunil Janah of well-known people like Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Sheikh Abdullah, Faiz, J. Krishnamurthi, etc. also became famous. Several photographs of the Partition taken by him, are chapters of history themselves. NCERT books have also used many of his photographs.

Sunil Janah was born on 17th April, 1918 in Dibrugarh, Assam. His father was a well-known lawyer in Calcutta, and Sunil Janah’s education too happened in Calcutta. During his education in St. Xavier’s and Presidency College, he came into contact with leftist politics. After that in 1943 he came in contact with P.C. Joshi, and thereafter left his education and decided to take on the path of the Left. At that time P.C. Joshi was travelling in the interior of Bengal to assess the state of the famine. Accompanying him was the artist, Chittaprasad. They both took Sunil Janah with them as well. Sunil Janah said, ‘P.C. Joshi used to write and I used to take photographs. He had a very simple Kodak camera. From that point my life changed.’ Then P.C. Joshi returned to Calcutta, and Sunil Janah went on to Orissa to capture photographs of the famine-affected in that area. Soon after P.C. Joshi’s report, accompanied by Janah’s photographs, got published in ‘People’s War’, most socialist and democratic countries published them as well and all of a sudden Sunil Janah got established as one of the best photographers in India. P.C. Joshi saw his photography, as well as his ideological understanding, and made him the photographer of the Communist Party of India. Sunil Janah said in an interview that he and his family members had wanted that before becoming the CPI photographer he should give his exams and get his degree. However P.C. Joshi said, ‘Absolutely not! These exams, etc are useless and nonsensical.’ That made Janah realise their absolute lack of utility.

After that Joshi took Janah with him to Mumbai, where the Party headquarters were located. He then went on to become a Party whole-timer. He and Chittaprasad used to live together. Both of them were deeply associated with IPTA and the Progressive Writers’ Association. At that time he used to get a stipend of Rs.20, of which Rs.10 used to go towards a communal kitchen.

After that wherever the Party asked him to go, he would go and take photographs. Demonstrations, meetings, movements, arrests, repression, navy rebellion, peasant uprisings, Congress, Muslim League, Bangladesh War... along with all the leaders and movements he kept on the recording on camera the dignity of the labouring masses. According to him he was taking photographs of ordinary people and ordinary scenes, to show whom the Communist Party was for. It is obvious that that the opportunity to work with such independence was given to Sunil Janah especially because of the depth of P.C. Joshi’s organisational understanding, as well as his ability to appreciate true art.

In ‘People’s War’ and after that ‘People’s Age’ Janah used to have one page for a photo feature for which he photographed the lives of ordinary people, their struggles, the beauty of the working class at work, rowing boats, catching fish, in coal mines, from men and women working in homes and fields to bow and arrow carrying tribals, farmers and workers heading to protest, revolutionaries of Telangana and via these photographs he established the Communist Party’s ideology and commitment amongst the people.

When world’s attention came on to the Bengal Famine due to Sunil Janah and his photographs, a very famous photographer, Margaret Bourke-White of the well-known magazine ‘Life’ came to India to cover the Bengal Famine. Margaret Bourke-White was already famous for being the first woman war photographer, for being invited to the Soviet Union and being the first one to take photographs of their heavy industry, for the ‘talking’ photographs of the Great Depression and a smiling picture of Stalin. It has been written about her that she was, ‘...The woman who had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean, strafed by the Luftwaffe, stranded on an Arctic island, bombarded in Moscow, and pulled out of the Chesapeake when her chopper crashed, was known to the Life staff as “Maggie the Indestructible”.’

By then the famine had reached from Bengal to Andhra and other parts of southern India. Margaret Bourke-White came into contact with the CPI and there P.C. Joshi introduced her to Sunil Janah. Margaret Bourke-White needed someone to help her and show her around in India. Interestingly, Sunil Janah had already made plans to travel to those regions. It was decided that they would travel together. In an interview to V.K. Ramachandran that was published in Frontline, Janah said, ‘For the first time the expenses for the CPI were borne by Life magazine... and for the first time that I travelled in First Class.’

Margaret Bourke-White was in India from 1945 to 1948. Apart from documenting the tumultuous politics of those times, she also travelled to many parts of the country, where she saw and tried to understand the lives of the common people. During the entire period of her stay Margaret Bourke-White took her photographs separately and Janah his. Both did independent work, and the friendship that grew at this time stayed till the end of their lives. The photographs that we see today of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Sheikh Abdullah or of the time of the Partition have been taken by the two of them. In fact, Margaret Bourke-White had taken photographs and an interview of Gandhi, just an hour before he was assassinated.

About this phase Sunil Janah had said, ‘I was a committed worker of my Party and my political ideology. I was a dedicated Communist. And being a photographer of a country with such beauty and diversity, I used to feel that the country had been very kind to me.’

Differences happened within the CPI in 1948, and Comrade P.C. Joshi did not remain the General Secretary. From then the distance between Sunil Janah and the CPI grew, as P.C. Joshi had been very important to Janah. In 1947-48, Janah started a photo-studio in Calcutta and he continued work on his ‘artistic’ work and took photographs and documented the architecture of monuments, temples, etc, as well as of various Indian dance forms. He took memorable photographs of great artistes like Shanta Rao, Ragini Devi, Indrani Rehman, Bade Ghulam Ali, etc. In 1949, he founded the Calcutta Film Society and along with Chidanand Dasgupta, Hari Dasgupta, even Satyajit Ray was a part of this Society. The cover of Sunil Janah’s first book, The Second Creature was designed by Satyajit Ray. After that he published two books, Dances of the Golden Hall and The Tribals of India. The work on his book The Tribals of India was done with the famous anthropologist Verrier Elwin. He died before the publication of another book, Photographing India. This book will soon be published by Oxford University Press. It not only contains photographs from six decades of Janah’s work, but also his autobiography and his experiences of living in the US after 9/11.

Very few people know this fact that Janah, who captured the world with the sharpness of his camera’s eyes, had only functional eye-sight in one eye. He had lost vision of one of his eyes due to glaucoma, in his childhood. Despite this Sunil Janah used to develop all his negatives himself. In his last years, he lost his vision in his other eye too. He never acquired any formal degrees in photography. Whatever he learned, he learned by doing, and by learning from those who were regarded as the great photographers of those times. He took photographs for three decades from the 1930s to the 90s. In these 60 years he took photographs of the struggles of peasants and workers, the freedom struggle, of historical monuments to the so-called ‘temples’ of modern India like dams, industries, machine-goods factories, of the laying of railway lines, of cultural-social-scientific-political personalities to the various tribal communities of India, from riots, famines, piles of dead bodies, rebellion, repression, Partition, displacement to the beauty of human labour. Arjun has said about his father’s photographs, that each of them is composed like a poem.

In the 70s exhibitions of his photographs were put up in many parts of India and the world. The erstwhile socialist countries of Europe displayed his photographs in many places. In 1978, he went and settled in London, where his wife Shobha was a doctor. Several of his exhibitions were put up in London, and he received various honours. Soon after the Nehru Centre opened in London in 1992, there was a programme centred on Sunil Janah’s photographs. The BBC and ITV made two documentaries about his life and work.  Large exhibitions of his photographs happened in Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta. The son of the world-renowned dancer Indrani Rehman, Ram Rehman – who himself was a photographer – arranged a huge exhibition of Janah’s photographs in New York in 1998, which got remarkable praise all around. In 2002, the Janah couple moved from London to the US.

Till his death, his belief in life and socialism never wavered. He left one scene of history behind him. This treasure and its creator, were quietly nurtured over the years by his wife, Shobha Janah who died on 18th May, 2012 at the age of 86. She was a doctor by profession. After her death Sunil Janah, lived for less than a month. Their daughter, Monua Janah had died an untimely death in 2004.

On hearing the news of Sunil and Shobha Janah’s death, Comrade Bardhan sent a condolence message to Arjun. When he was speaking, I was typing and I could see him coming and going from the past to the present. I felt that I should have lived then. What people lived in those times.

Sunil Janah may not have been a Communist Party member, but his ideal throughout his life was socialism. He said in an interview in 1998, ‘Even today my belief and conviction is in Socialism. Capitalism is an uncivilised and inhuman system whose foundation is greed.’ Ram Rehman had said rightly said, ‘Sunil Janah was different from other photographers. He was an active political activist, and his photography was his political activism.’

In many respects, the world has become a very small place, but not small enough that all of us from IPTA and the Progressive Writers’ Association could reach Arjun and tell him that we are with him. However, we do all want to say that Sunil Janah was a part of our family too, and will continue to be so; and therefore, Arjun is also part of the world’s large communist family, and not alone.


  1. The New York Times, 9th July 2012.
  2. The Guardian, 5th July 2012.
  3. Frontline, September 12-25, 1998.
  5. The Hindu, 23rd June 2012.
  6. Hindustan Times, 14th July 2012.

Translated from the Hindi by Atishi Marlena

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