Jitendra Arya didn’t just photograph celebrities, he was a celebrity himself. In Arwa Mamaji’s Key-Fill-Cut, a short documentary on his life, author Shobhaa De recalls a portrait of actor Zeenat Aman with her that Arya had taken: “I was 17-18 at the time, and quite awestruck. For a lot of young models, being photographed by Jitendra Arya was a ticket to something much bigger." Over the phone, Arya’s son Kavi, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, says something similar. “People today don’t realize that he had star status. When he would return from a trip, the customs officers would invariably be fans."

Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in 1953. Photographs courtesy Jitendra Arya Foundation
Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in 1953. Photographs courtesy Jitendra Arya Foundation

Arya, who died in 2011, isn’t as well-known today, but a new retrospective might remedy that. Curated by photo historian, professor and film-maker Sabeena Gadihoke, the exhibition Light Works, running at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, covers the sweep of Arya’s career, from his work in England in the 1950s to his long stint with The Times Group, photographing everyone from India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to actor Shammi Kapoor. With assistance from Arya’s wife, Chhaya, and Kavi, Gadihoke selected 300 photographs from over 7,000.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis outside Stratford Court Hotel on Oxford Street (now the Edwardian Berkshire Hotel), London, 1956.
Raj Kapoor and Nargis outside Stratford Court Hotel on Oxford Street (now the Edwardian Berkshire Hotel), London, 1956.

Growing up in Nairobi, Arya developed an early interest in photography, receiving his first camera when he was 10. At 16, he left for London, where he apprenticed with Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto. Eventually, he opened a studio of his own. His skill as a portraitist can be seen in his photographs of the time: playwright Harold Pinter, looking like a matinee idol; actor Anju Mahendru, smiling, with a flower in her mouth; jurist and diplomat M.C. Chagla, whose poised pen gives the impression that Arya caught him mid-sentence.

Maqbool Fida Husain for a photo feature titled ‘Artist At Work’ in ‘The Illustrated Weekly Of India’, 1963.
Maqbool Fida Husain for a photo feature titled ‘Artist At Work’ in ‘The Illustrated Weekly Of India’, 1963.

Over email, Gadihoke says Peto’s candid portraits of celebrities and his essays on street life were a likely influence on Arya, and that he was familiar with the work of Yousuf Karsh, the Armenian-Canadian portraitist who took the classic 1941 photograph of a scowling Winston Churchill, then British premier. “I would also like to draw attention to a self-taught Arya who was a connoisseur of classical art, music and dance from his days in London," she writes. “I believe that an exposure to some of this also influenced his work. For instance, in interviews, he has spoken about learning about the effect of light from classical masters like Rembrandt."

In October 1960, the Aryas moved back to India when Chhaya was offered the lead role of Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (a part eventually played by Meena Kumari). Arya became chief photo editor with The Times Group. He used his own stature to push for more respectability for his profession; after joining The Times Of India, he insisted that the paper carry photographer bylines. Through his photographs for Femina and Filmfare, Arya also ushered in another kind of revolution. “He paved the way for a form of glamour photography at a time when the primary lens of looking at Indian photography was through photojournalism," Gadihoke writes.

Ava Gardner on the sets of ‘Mogambo’.
Ava Gardner on the sets of ‘Mogambo’.

Arya’s knack for candid photographs is particularly evident in Light Works. He forged a long-standing association with the Nehru-Gandhi family—his photograph of an unguarded Nehru and Indira in Dehradun is revelatory, as are the ones (pictured above) with Dev Anand and his baby son, and a relaxed-looking Raj Kapoor and Nargis in London. He seemed to have a knack for putting his subjects at ease. “Clearly there was a synergy between photographer and subjects, and some would often tell him how they felt about their own portraits," Gadihoke writes. “Edwina Mountbatten once sent him back a picture of herself with a note at the back that said, ‘Nose too broad. Please rectify!’"

Satyajit Ray with the vintage 1930 Chrysler used in ‘Abhijan’, Kolkata. Photoshoot for ‘Filmfare’, 25 January 1965.
Satyajit Ray with the vintage 1930 Chrysler used in ‘Abhijan’, Kolkata. Photoshoot for ‘Filmfare’, 25 January 1965.

Over the phone, Kavi recalls how Arya would be amused when other photographers spent hours trying to capture a single photograph. He likens his father’s ability to quickly and evocatively capture what was required to a master samurai felling his enemy with the fewest possible cuts. The advice he once gave his sons about photography was to the point: Keep it simple; find the right angle and distance from the subject; appreciate the play of light, and avoid using flash.

Edwina Mountbatten once sent him back a picture of herself with a note at the back that said, ‘Nose too broad. Please rectify!’- Sabeena Gadihoke

In Truth, Love And A Little Malice, the late Khushwant Singh writes about taking Arya to the trial of serial killer Raman Raghav. “Raman was a dark, stocky and powerfully built man in his mid-forties. As soon as he saw the photographer, he began to scream and jump about, hurling obscenities at everyone. ‘Take him now,’ I shouted at Arya. ‘Let him calm down,’ replied Arya.’ I realized that Arya would never make a crime photographer…."

Gadihoke says that even though it’s couched in a humorous manner, the point about Arya making his subjects “calm down" is revealing. There is, indeed, a sense of calm that informs much of his work—work that had fallen out of public view, and has deservedly been revived.

Light Works is on till 8 October (Mondays closed), 11am-6pm, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Fort, Mumbai.

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