BANGALORE: History waited since 1984 in a corner of commercial photographer Aditya Arya’s home in Delhi. A treasure of photographs belonging to photojournalist and family friend Kulwant Roy, dating back to 1930-1960, remained undiscovered in storage boxes in Arya’s home till 2008.
This work of great archival value will now be showcased at an exhibition at the NGMA in Bangalore on October 10-11.
The pictures capture salient moments from the freedom struggle, and provide insights into the key figures who stirred the nationalist fervour. The display includes 227 archival prints and more than 100 original silver bromide prints. Also on show are letters that Roy wrote during a world tour, and rare, vintage cameras that he used.
The life story of the photographer runs parallel with that of his archivist though the narratives unfold in different times.
According to the archival information collected by Arya, Kulwant Roy was born in Baglikalan in Ludhiana. A friend of Arya’s family, Roy learnt photography from Arya’s great uncles in the 1920s before embarking on his career.
His earliest work of importance was documenting the meeting of Mahatma Gandhi and ‘Frontier’ Gandhi or Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan in the North West Frontier Province (in present-day Pakistan) in 1938. The exhibition in Bangalore will include large reproductions of rare negatives from the meeting.
Roy went on to join the Royal Indian Air Force where he experimented with aerial shots from the cockpit of planes. Eventually, patriotism pushed him to stand up against discrimination by his British-origin superiors of the Royal Air Force. It led to a court martial and a discharge.
It was a tumultuous time in India because the country's history was being written. Roy planted himself right in its midst with his camera and moved to Delhi, the nerve-centre of the political action for freedom.
He was able to capture many momentous events, like the Simla Cabinet Mission in 1945. The photos breathe life into what we just know as glorious chapters from another era. After 1947, Roy, travelled around the country and documented the changes that the nascent country was going through. He built a veritable treasure chest of rare visual history that depicts the beginning of nation building.
In 1958, Roy left for a world tour with his photographs and was published in newspapers abroad. Prominent among his work were pictures of people on the Amarnath yatra.
During his world tour, he took several photographs and mailed the negatives and the prints to his home in Delhi in 1963. On returning, Roy kept waiting for them but they never turned up and were lost forever. It broke his spirit and he kept searching for them in the dustbins of Delhi.
Roy had learnt photography from Arya’s great uncles in the 1920s in Lahore. “They had parted ways later but he again became close to my family in the '60s," says Arya.
In the 1970s, Arya discovered photography when he was 15. Roy appointed Arya as his assistant and his days were spent with the photographer at his house near Kashmiri Gate in Delhi.
"He never married and my family was all he had. My parents were very protective of him and made sure he had at least one meal a day with us," says Arya.
When Roy died in 1984, he left several of his boxes to Arya, where they remained unopened for about 25 years.
Arya’s mother, who passed away last year, would constantly remind him of the boxes that Roy had left behind.
"She had promised Roy that these photographs would find their rightful place. But I sat on it for so many years because I was scared that once these boxes were opened, their contents would overtake my life. With each picture, I go back in history. He was writing visual history back then. It is important to preserve them," he says.
In 2008, Aditya opened the boxes and discovered gold. Since then his profession has taken a backseat and he has been passionately working towards getting Roy's work given its rightful place in history. Arya has put up numerous shows across the country to showcase his teacher’s work. He also wants to take these masterpieces to schools and colleges, so that students' understanding of those times is not limited to text books alone.
With Roy’s posthumous help in him becoming a visual history archivist, Arya has also opened a camera museum in Delhi that has nearly 800 cameras from the 1870s.
"Today's generation doesn't know where mega pixels came from. In those days, political photographers worked really hard to get a single, important shot. There was no scope to tell Mahatma or Jinnah, 'Sir ek baar aur' (Sir, one more time please). If a moment was lost, it was lost forever," he adds.
Arya's days are spent poring over these images and connecting them to news articles from that time. Recently he found a set of pictures from Gandhi's funeral. And the narratives continue.