The eyes have it

This is not only a valued collection of photos of a nation in flux but it also restores visual archiving to its rightful place, writes, Namita Bhandare.

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There’s a photograph in this tome of a book that describes the tension and politics of Partition better than words. It’s of a meeting to announce the June 3 plan for India’s Partition. Lord Mountbatten sits dead centre, on one side are Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Acharya Kripalani and Baldev Singh. On the other side is the Muslim League represented by M.A. Jinnah and Shaukat Ali. Mountbatten has a faint smile that belies the obvious strain on the faces of Nehru and Jinnah.

The beauty of looking at the course of history with the benefit of hindsight is the ability to catch the mood of a particular moment, sometimes tragic, often ironic, frequently humorous. We know now from biographies on Indira Gandhi that she resented her paternal aunts whom she looked upon as her mother’s tormentors. With that knowledge, we perceive layers of resentment as a somewhat sullen young Indira steps to one side while Vijaylakshmi Pandit is clearly the queen of the moment, arriving for a public meeting at the Gandhi Grounds, New Delhi in a 1941 photograph.

This collection of the archives of press photographer Kulwant Roy does not claim to be a complete documentation chronicling the events preceding and following India’s Independence. There is, for instance, no record of the Bengal Famine of 1943, points out historian Indivar Kamtekar, who along with photographer Aditya Arya has edited this book. Roy was not in Bengal at the time of the famine. “This is one man’s archive, not a pictorial history of India,” specifies Kamtekar.

What Roy’s photographs do bring alive is a complete mood. We are witness to the sense of the gravitas that gripped Nehru, Maulana Azad, Patel and Rajendra Prasad as they sat in deep deliberation in an undated photograph. The patrician Jinnah addresses a Muslim League meeting, cigarette in mouth as an umbrella-holder stands guard behind. Captain Ram Singh (who composed ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’) plays the violin for Gandhi, an unmistakable look of pride on his face.

The fact that History In the Making should exist at all is serendipitous. In 1984, Roy, as a press photographer with the Associated Photo Service and an honorary mamaji to young photographer Aditya Arya, died of cancer. Roy left Arya not just a love for photography but five-six trunks full of pictures. For close to 25 years, those trunks remained locked. Then, in the winter of 2007, Arya decided to finally open them, discovering inside rare photographs that didn’t seem to exist anywhere else.

History… documents a significant phase in the building of our nation. But it’s even more important as it restores history and visual archiving to their rightful place in any civil society.

Namita Bhandare is Delhi-based writer