Documenting Upheavals; Framing Transformations
Representation and contextualisation, processes crucial to the construction of history, come under the scanner as Jahnavi Phalkey goes through a book by Aditya Arya and Indivar Kamtekar that presents the superb visual archives of ace photojournalist Kulwant Roy.
IN ADITYA ARYA’S WORDS, THIS BOOK IS MEANT TO BE an illustrated story of the Indian freedom struggle, apart from being a personal tribute in honour of his mentor and family friend, the green-chilli-eating bachelor-photojournalist Kulwant Roy (1914- 1984). Arya inherited Roy’s collection of photographs, some of which he has edited together in this volume. A bulk of the photographs that we see here are from the period leading up to and right after Indian independence. History in the Making is, in fact, the organising idea behind the volume, and apart from over 300 photographs, the book also offers three short essays: ‘Images to Interrogate’ by the historian Indivar Kamtekar, ‘In Black and White: A History of Photojournalism’ and ‘Kulwant Roy: A Life behind the Camera’, both by Aditya Arya and Sonam Joshi. The photographs themselves are organised into ten sections, more or less chronologically, but also arranged around topics: ‘Moving towards Power’, ‘The Arrival of Authority’, ‘The Muslim League’, ‘ The INA Trials’, Non-Violence in a Land of Blood Feuds’, ‘Rulers Old and New’, ‘Nation Building’, ‘Arrivals and Departures’, ‘Quiet Moments’, and finally, ‘The Personal Lens’.
Kulwant Roy was, like many of his generation, a self-trained photographer and began work in Lahore in the 1930s. His skills, perhaps, helped him enrol with the Royal Indian Air Force (1940 or 1941) as an aerial lensman. His job was to photograph the troublesome North West Frontier Province, a post from which he was soon dismissed. He went on to establish his own outfit – the Associated Photo Service in Lahore, and then moved to Mori Gate, Delhi. As an independent photographer, Roy covered the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.
It is refreshing to open a book of photographs with an essay by a historian. Indivar Kamtekar brings his own work to bear upon Roy’s images and raises questions about the politics and aesthetics of this period. It remains puzzling, though, that he juxtaposes tragic war-related images of destruction in the European mid-20th century, to contrast with the optimism and celebration of an Indian one, where “no wounded soldiers, no defeated leaders are on display” (p. 10). Any such claim is quickly undermined, even in his own essay, when he brings up the Bengal famine and Partition, not to mention dead soldiers of Indian origin who fought in the war. No doubt, as Kamtekar argues, this is one man’s archive and not a pictorial history of India, but is there a larger point here waiting to be made?
Kamtekar and Arya’s claim that the mid- 20th century narrative of the sub-continent is one of anticipation, expectation, hope and even celebration, is to be taken seriously, even when one may not agree with their framing. The optimism that came with independence has been lost in the cynicism that has crystallised following disappointments with and excesses of the Indian (and the Pakistani) state. How then, for the sake of good history, is one to recapture the sense, for many, of things heading in “the right direction”? How is one to recapture the purposefulness and the determination of the men vigorously exercising in a refugee camp – expressed so earnestly – in the Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph that Kamtekar evokes in his discussion? The recovery of visual archives of the period appears convincing, perhaps, more convincing than textual archives!