Freeze frames: Kulwant Roy’s snapshots of India on show

October 8th, 2008 - 11:04 am ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Oct 8 (IANS) An ongoing exhibition of photographs by Kulwant Roy shows how a good photojournalist does justice to history because of his innate sense of news and perspective.Roy (1914-1984), who set up the Associated Press Photo agency, captured India’s journey from the last days of the Raj to Independence and the growing up decades thereafter in his black and white frames - many of which are tinged with sepia and nostalgia now.

An exhibition of the photographs, “History in the Making”, that opened early this week at the Indira Gandhi National Centre For The Arts here offers snapshots of Indian history from pre-to-post partition days through 77 original large prints and 18 silver bromide prints. Indian Council for Cultural Relations president Karan Singh inaugurated the show.

The shots include iconic personalities from India’s pre- and post-Independence era; demonstrations, glimpses into the lives of famous leaders and political conclaves.

This was the age when the camera moved out from the studio to the streets and the easily-available brands like Speed Graphic’s, Rolleiflex’s and Leica allowed photographers the liberty to shoot anything.

Some of the events that the Ludhiana-born Roy’s agency covered during the 1940s and 1950s included the visit of Stafford Cripps to India in 1941, the Simla conference in 1945, Muslim league meetings, the INA trials, fund-raising by Mahatma Gandhi, the integration of the princely states, the building of the Bhakra Dam and visits of dignitaries to India in the years following independence.

An old sepia print of Jawaharlal Nehru with young Indira by his side is poignant. Nehru has his arms around a boy as his daughter looks on. In another rare glimpse of history, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru walk out to a Congress meeting while Sardar Patel is carried alongside in a rickshaw.

A shot of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi engaged in a heated debate is stunning in its candour and the body language of the characters on the frame. Such snapshots from history are galore.

Commenting on the show, Karan Singh said the photographs were part of the country’s socio-political heritage.

In 1938, Roy documented the visit of Gandhi to meet Khan Adbul Ghaffar Khan in the North West Frontier Province.

In 1941, Roy joined the Royal Indian Air Force in Kohat near Quetta, where he was able to use his newly-acquired skills to take aerial shots from the cockpits of planes.

But Roy found it difficult to tolerate the policies of his British superiors and had to leave the Air Force after being court-martialled. He moved to Delhi before partition and set up Associated Press Photos. The photographer finally gave up his vocation in 1963 after a box containing the prints and negatives of all his photographs was lost in transit.

“He had mailed them to his address in Delhi, but they did not reach. Broken in spirit, he spent the last years of his life scouting post offices and hunting for boxes in garbage dumps of Delhi, and quit all his foreign assignments,” said Aditya Arya, owner of the archive that is restoring, collating and annotating Roy’s historical images.

Arya plans to digitise, document and preserve this collection.

“My association with Roy goes back a long way. He gave me my first job as an assistant in his darkroom,” Arya told IANS. “We used to stay near Mori Gate and my father taught at the St Stephen’s College. Roy was a bachelor and came to our house every evening for meals. It grew into a lifelong bond and he left all that was left with him in our custody.”

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