Tehelka.comtehelkahindi.com criticalfutures.org

Search for archived stories here...

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 44, Dated Nov 08, 2008

Chronicles of India Beginning

Kulwant Roy’s photographs lay hidden in boxes for years. Now, the man and his work are revealed, writes SABEENA GADIHOKE

madhur bhandarkar
Family matters: Nehru with grandson Rajiv and daughter Indira before a trip abroad, undated

WHILE THE nationalist movement was gathering momentum in India, a quiet revolution was happening elsewhere. The camera had moved out of the studio into the streets, and more portable photographic equipment was making it possible for a small group of intrepid photographers to be present at every major event of the time. While the more iconic of their images would eventually be remembered as History, their own histories were far from visible, dominated as they were by stories of missing negatives and prints, of ambiguities about ownership and authorship and a lack of recognition. After all, unlike their more famous counterparts like Margaret Bourke-White or Henri Cartier-Bresson, these were just humble press photographers.

During the course of researching a book on the lone woman among them, one heard the poignant story of Kulwant Roy, who spent the last years of his life scouting post offices and garbage dumps in Delhi. After taking photographs in over 20 countries over three years, Roy had put all his work into boxes to be shipped back home in Mori Gate. None of the boxes arrived. Perhaps that was why, as he battled with cancer, Roy painstakingly annotated all his life’s work in India and packed it in neatly labelled boxes. His memory was fading by now, but when he died, in 1984, the boxes were a carefully preserved archive of a few thousand prints and negatives. Roy never married and, as his only remaining property, these were left with the Arya family, who cared for him in his last days. Their son, Aditya Arya, would also become a photographer, but never had time enough to open those boxes. And when he eventually did, it resulted in an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Born in Bagli Kalan in Ludhiana, Punjab, in 1914, Kulwant Roy started his career in the 1930s, when he learnt photography from Aditya’s uncle, Raj Gopal, who ran the Gopal Chitra Kutter studio on Nisbet Road in Lahore. He joined the Royal Indian Air Force in Kohat, near Quetta, in 1941, where he was able to use his newly-acquired skills to take aerial shots from the cockpits of planes.

madhur bhandarkar
Yes, Home Minister: Nehru with Govind Ballabh Pant, undated

Inspired by the growing nationalist movement, Roy found it difficult to tolerate the discriminatory policies of his British superiors, and left the service after participating in the Naval Mutiny of 1946. Relocating to Delhi in the mid- 1940s, he worked for the Associated Press photo agency and photographed the Cripps Mission, the Shimla Conference, Muslim League meetings and the INA trials, the integration of the princely states, the building of the Bhakra Dam, the wars with China and Pakistan, and the visits of dignitaries to India.

National politics and ‘heroic figures’ dominated press photographs at this time. Roy’s archive, especially his uncropped frames, reveal other, more ordinary protagonists — such as Congress workers sharing an informal conversation with Jawaharlal Nehru in Kanpur.

MUSLIM LEAGUE meetings in the 1940s record the attendance of elite women like Fatimah Jinnah, seated in the front rows, as well as that of a large segment of ordinary women. In yet another League meeting, the aristocratic MA Jinnah sits on a stage with two men attending to him with an umbrella and fan. While some of these may have been unguarded, candid moments, photographs also emerged out of the performitivity invoked by the presence of the camera. Nehru was one such camera-friendly subject, who would readily pose for pictures. Simultaneously captured by Roy were quieter and more reflective moments of public figures. There is a lone image of a contemplative Nehru sitting with his bat at a parliamentarians’ cricket match. In another photograph, he gently

madhur bhandarkar
The good fight: Nehru with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Sardar Patel, arriving for the Shimla Conference, 1945

bids farewell to his grandson Rajiv as he leaves for a tour; in yet another he holds his head, surpress conference. Other kinds of post- Independence histories emerge from these photographs. A smiling Gandhi mobilises donations for the Harijan fund with industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj by his side. There is the tense body language of a prince from Kapurthala, uncertain of his future in democratic India. A photo of tired and perhaps impatient workers by the mobile pay van at the Bhakra construction site stands testimony to their role in the building of the dam. Nehru had once declared, “The Taj Mahal is for the dead, the Bhakra is for the living”. The dam certainly served the living, but some more than others, as subsequent histories of development and displacement would indicate.

MANY OF Roy’s images may seem familiar. At his last press conference before departing for Pakistan in 1947, Jinnah was startled when a woman fell from a packing case while taking his picture. The photographer was Homai Vyarawalla. Her image of Jinnah, printed on the front page of The Statesman, is matched by an almost identical one that appears in this collection. In this picture, however, we see both Homai Vyarawalla and Kulwant Roy in the frame. Taken by another colleague from the Associated Press, this was not surprising, as several photographers were covering the same event. Unaware of the importance of their role, these chroniclers were creating visual archives of their present.

Images from History in the Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy, an exhibition at the IGNCA, Delhi, curated by Aditya Arya and Sabeena Gadihoke, with Indivar Kamtekar. Gadihoke teaches at Jamia University. Her book, Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, was published in 2006

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 44, Dated Nov 08, 2008



  About Us | Advertise With Us | Print Subscriptions | Syndication | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy | Feedback | Contact Us | Bouquets & Brickbats