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Sunil Janah, an Indian photographer who achieved international fame with his pictures of the famine that devastated Bengal in 1943 and 1944, died on June 21 at his home in California. He was 94.
Janah documented India’s ethnic and religious diversity, as well as important events in the country’s modern history, both before and immediately after it achieved independence in 1947.
In an era when photographers faced many technical disadvantages, he started with a Kodak Box Brownie and did not use a Nikon until the 1980s.
His photographs of the famine, published in People’s War, the journal of the Communist Party of India, revealed horrors that had been barely reported in the mainstream press which was censored by the British authorities. As the critic Vicki Goldberg wrote in The New York Times in 1998, reviewing an exhibition of Janah’s work at Gallery at 678 in Manhattan, his pictures showed “lines of emaciated people waiting for food, groups of skeletons, hungry dogs gnawing at human bones.” Postcards of these images were sent around the world to raise funds.
“Unlike other photographers,” says Ram Rahman, the curator of that exhibition, “Janah was an active political worker whose political work happened to be photography.”
Janah later became known for his candid photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, the writer and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and other prominent Indian figures. In one, he showed Gandhi seated in a pensive mood before a large crowd in Mumbai.
Janah was born on April 17, 1918, in Dibrugarh, Assam. His father, Sarat Chandra, was a well-known Calcutta High Court advocate. Janah grew up in Kolkata, and became interested in photography as a boy; he had no formal training, but learned by working with established photographers in their darkrooms.
He became involved in left-wing politics while studying at St Xavier’s College and Presidency College in Kolkata. P C Joshi, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India, persuaded him to abandon his studies and travel with him and the artist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya to document the Bengal famine.
The pictures brought him fame in India, where he was sought out by Margaret Bourke-White, the renowned photographer for Life magazine. They became friends and worked as a team, photographing the famine after it had spread into Rayalaseema and Mysore in 1945. They also documented the turmoil before and after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, notably in pictures of people filling the streets of Kolkata after his death.
Expelled from the Communist Party of India in 1947, Janah opened a studio and started photographing dancers and Hindu temple sculptures. In 1949, he founded the Calcutta Film Society with, among others, Satyajit Ray, who designed Janah’s first book of photographs, The Second Creature.
Bitter that his pictures were often used without payment or credit, Janah became a recluse and kept them from public view for years. But a revival of interest in his work led to exhibitions in Eastern Europe in the mid-1970s, two British documentaries about his life in the 1980s and retrospectives in India in the early ’90s. In addition to The Second Creature, Janah’s books include Dances of the Golden Hall and The Tribals of India. His final book, Photographing India, has not yet been published.
©2012 The New York Times