Jitendra Arya, who died in 2011, was one of the most influential Indian photographers of his generation. His oeuvre ranged from evocative black and white candid photographs to glossy colour work that made the covers of Filmfare and Femina. An ongoing retrospective, Light Works, which opened in Mumbai last year, and is now on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, celebrates his long career. In an interview, we asked its curator, the photo historian, professor and film-maker Sabeena Gadihoke, about what made Arya’s work so special. Edited excerpts:

Was photojournalist Michael Peto, whom Arya assisted early on in his career, an influence on him?

While Peto, who was known for his candid portraits of celebrities (besides his essays on street life), would certainly have influenced a young Arya, he was also familiar with the work of (portrait photographer) Yousuf Karsh. But 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. I believe that an exposure to this also influenced his work. For instance, in interviews, Arya has spoken about learning about the effect of light from classical masters like Rembrandt.

His candid photographs are quite remarkable. Did he have a knack for getting celebrities to relax in front of the camera?

Arya shot both staged as well as candid pictures. Some among his candid pictures stand out more than others and these do happen to be people that he knew more intimately. Dev Anand, for instance, had become a friend from his time in London and his pictures of Anand with his young son Suneil or his wife Mona (Kalpana Kartik) and sister Usha are particularly striking. The Raj Kapoor and Nargis pictures at the Stratford Court in London are my favourite for the way in which he captured this young couple.

Having said this, I also believe that Arya could not have taken his staged portraits without his subjects being at ease. Clearly there was a synergy between photographer and subjects and some would often tell him how they felt about their own portraits. Edwina Mountbatten once sent him back a picture of herself with a note at the back that said “Nose too broad. Please rectify!" The show features a section on Nutan where you see both sensibilities (staged and candid). There is a lovely set of candid pictures of the actress meeting her Collies (her mother Shobhana Samarth bred dogs).

A small anecdote on Arya by Khushwant Singh is interesting. Singh writes of the experience of taking Arya with him to the sessions court in Mumbai where Raman Raghav, the infamous serial killer, was being tried. “Raman was a dark, stocky and powerfully built man in his mid-40s. 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...." While the section is humorous, Singh’s point about Arya making his subjects “calm down" is revealing.

Was Arya regarded primarily as a photographer of famous people?

Arya shot famous people but he had the ability to sprinkle stardust on the ordinary person as well. This was one of his greatest achievements. When he started to shoot ordinary middle-class women for Femina in the early 1960s, he shot them like stars irrespective of who they were. He often spoke about giving dignity to even an ordinary person on the street. He was a skilled portraitist but he was also a master of candid photography.

He had the ability to create auratic photographs using light and depth in a pre-Photoshop moment. With a body of work that spanned a half century, 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. When he returned to India in 1960 and got a job at The Times Of India, he made sure (like Kishor Parekh) that photographers got bylines.

His early spreads can be considered to be an early form of fashion photography. He also took production stills on the locations shoots of many films. While we have not shown this in the retrospective, Arya was a master of erotic photography too. In other words, he was a multifaceted photographer.

What were your meetings with him like?

I first met Arya in the summer of 2009, two years before he passed away. I was working on a dissertation on photography and print culture in the 1950s and 1960s. He wasn’t very well and was a bit quiet. He spoke in short bursts and I do not remember anything very distinctive in our conversation. What I do recall is his eagerness that I should look at his photographs and would often sit watching me take digital reproductions of his photographs. Sadly, when I went back a year later, he did not recognize me.

Which are your favourite photographs of his?

I have many favourite pictures that I have obviously chosen to be more prominent than the others. While I personally love the hand-coloured portrait of Mala Sinha for its colours and style, I have a weakness for his beautiful tones in black and white. There are some tiny vintage prints of Sitara Devi and Nayantara Sehgal taken in London in the studio.

I have a wall dedicated to romance with pictures of couples in London that include Ashok Kumar and his wife, Premnath and Bina Rai on their honeymoon and some lovely candid pictures of Nargis and Raj Kapoor walking on the streets. There is a huge blow-up of Maharani Gayatri Devi where she looks directly at the camera and the picture has a quietness because the photographer has kept a distance from her. And Nutan and the dogs—for its colours and its love between a human being and animals.

Have there been any additions for the Bengaluru leg?

We did another round of scanning before Bengaluru, so some additions are just better pictures that one found. There is a substantial new section that got added, though. Arya lived in England for a while. He took pictures of the funeral of Queen Mary. I felt these were relevant because so many people watch (Netflix series) The Crown. In the series, they talk about how television crews were used for the first time for the coronation of Elizabeth. A year later, queen Mary dies, and you see the BBC taking footage of the funeral—which was previously unheard of.

There’s also a section on his work in Kenya, where he started his career. Besides shooting in the Masai area and in Nairobi, he shot a significant event: the trial of Jomo Kenyatta, who became the first black head of state in Kenya. One of his lawyers, Chaman Lal, an Indian, was very close to Nehru, and was asked by him to keep an eye on the trials.

Light Works is on till 20 August, National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru.

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