New Delhi: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi recently made it to Time magazine's ‘Top 25 political icons' list of all time. This led photographer Aditya Arya to reminisce about archiving a rare collection of Gandhi's images.
Since 2008, Arya has been documenting thousands of photographs and negatives that are a gold mine in terms of historical evidence of Indian history since the 1930s. These include several hundred images that were never published from the last days of British rule.
The photographs were shot by Kulwant Roy, a photojournalist and close family friend of the Aryas. Roy died of cancer in a Delhi hospital in 1984. He never married and left all his life's work, which contained several cartons of photographs and negatives, with Arya, then a budding photographer.
A preoccupation with his own work and career didn't give Arya a chance to go through Roy's legacy. But the day he set his eyes on the photos, Arya was jolted. Work took backseat. He says, "Along with a team of three people, I worked for almost 18 hours a day to record and preserve the photographs."
He speaks to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
GULF NEWS: For a man who believed in leading a simple life, what led you to bring out an expensive album on Gandhi costing Rs150,000 (Dh12,075)?
ADITYA ARYA: The idea germinated when I found acquaintances enquiring for some collector's prints as souvenirs.
Since I was developing some of Roy's negatives, the idea took shape and I contacted people who make the most exemplary archival papers in the world. That's also when I heard from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he wished to present the US President Barack Obama with a collection of Gandhi's photographs.
The PM had written the foreword for my book History In The Making and knew I had some rare images of the Indian leaders. The prototype was put in front of the committee and once it was given the go-ahead, we worked on it at full steam.
The limited collector's edition has only 200 copies, out of which India's first couple bought the first edition and the PM gifted one copy to President Obama. The book has a collection of 18 rare Gandhi pictures by Roy, put together by India Photo Archive Foundation (IPAF).
Why do you refer to the images as ‘rare'?
That's because many of them have not been in public domain till our archive came into being. It took me two years to work on this project, as I wanted it to be something extraordinary. We have used premium Hahnemuhle Bamboo archival paper which has a 150 years life span. The box has been designed using the most expensive pure raw silk and its binding has been done in pure raw khadi cloth.
Since you possess photographs of other leaders as well, would you be venturing into something similar with their pictures also?
Yes, I have photographs of Edwina and Lord Louis Mountbatten, Jacqueline Kennedy, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Liaquat Ali, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
And I intend doing something very constructive with these images.
You have also been holding exhibitions within and outside the country. How has been the response?
The response has been tremendous. Apart from the ones in the country, the exhibitions have been held in the US, Canada, the UK and France. And the recent one ‘A Pictorial History of India' is on in Spain, which was inaugurated by Queen Sofia.
What's the idea behind the exhibitions?
I am trying to raise funds as this year we are in the process of starting scholarships for photography. It will be called Kulwant Roy Memorial Photography Scholarship. The aim is to put the funds back into promoting photography because that's what Roy died doing.
People like him were pioneers in photo-journalism in the country. We must never forget that they worked in the most difficult times and the best way of paying tribute to them is by encouraging youngsters and promoting photography talent.
Could you give details of some significant photographs you have?
We have a 1939 photo of Gandhi in a heated argument with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. It was one of the rarest, as they were seldom photographed together, especially during the course of their disagreements. The photo was a part of the Hulton Archive Getty Images, one of the world's largest photo agencies. It was credited to a stringer for Topical Press, a defunct London news service.
Coincidentally, flipping through Peter Ruhe's book on Gandhi, I realised the same image was used there, but credited to Hulton Getty, with no mention of Roy.
I contacted a curator at Hulton Getty who said that they would be happy to credit it to Roy, once the facts were verified. It was simple to do that. In the published image, Liaquat Ali's photo had been cropped, while I had the original. Thus, after verification, the image was credited to Roy.
Similarly, there are several photographs that Roy sold to international news agencies during his lifetime, which are now found in archival collections. But they do not bear his name.
Won't these pictures need restoration, which is generally handled by institutions? How do you intend doing it on your own?
I know it is not easy to handle the restoration work. It is far too expensive and some restorers charge $500 [Dh1,836] to $2,000 for one photograph. Unfortunately, many photographs and negatives are stuck together.
The time I wasted in not bothering to have a look at them for more than two decades, has left them in a bad shape. Since the packets were left unattended, the destruction is there to see. I have documented the ones that are in proper shape. The ones that need restoration have been kept separately. We have sorted out, catalogued and archived more than 5,000 photographs. And there are many more.
I set up work stations and acquired real state-of-the-art equipment so that nothing is lost or destroyed. The ones to be restored would require huge resources. A minor error might destroy the image, because chemicals are used for restoration. And due to negligence, the photographs and negatives have already become so fragile.
Did you consider approaching any government agency to seek help?
The government is unable to handle their own works, how can I trust them on this. No one will understand the emotions behind [these photos]. It is my family's treasure trove and the single largest collection of its kind in the country.
I have been approached by several institutions to sell the photographs and negatives to them. Some have offered to take the images abroad and archive them. But I have decided to never let these "jewels" go outside the country.
Seeing the wonderful collection of photographs of Roy, have you ever wished you were born in the era of black and white pictures?
Not really. The techniques are much better now. But then when I started, I had to slog a lot. Digital photography happened recently. Even flash bulbs came in quite late. In Roy's time, they used a chemical powder, which another person had to light up and the photographer would quickly click.
I remember Roy telling me of an instance — once he and about half a dozen other photographers were shooting the then prime minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru. It was decided that instead of all assistants igniting their flash powders, only Roy's assistant would do so and all photographers would click at the same time.
But Roy's assistant thought that since seven photographers would be shooting, he should put in seven times the amount of flash powder! So when Roy gave the signal, his assistant lit the powder. But instead of a glow, there was an explosion. Everyone was covered with soot. And Nehru was furious.
It sounds funny now, but it was very dangerous. People could have got killed.
Do black and white photographs provide a lesson to the new-age photographers?
The pictures are an institution. You marvel at them considering the equipment was so primitive. With heavy equipment and limited resources, the lensmen in those times were so well organised.
Visualising their techniques, I can say that one does not need a high-tech camera to produce great pictures. You only need to be versatile to adapt yourself to different situations. I would say the collection of Roy's pictures is important not just because of the "people" in it, but also because it has a lot to do with the art of visualising.
Profile: Started as a travel photographer
- Aditya Arya was born on August 18, 1960 in New Delhi to Pratibha and Vedagya Arya.
- He did his schooling from Sardar Patel Vidhyalaya, New Delhi.
- Graduated from St Stephens College, University of Delhi.
- He began working with Kulwant Roy after finishing Class 11 in 1976.
- Started his career as a travel photographer in 1980.
- Worked as photo-editor with Swagat, the Indian Airlines magazine in 1991-92.
- Has done coffee table books and for the last more than two decades, has been into advertising photography and shoots for hotels worldwide.