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Azaadi Through the Aperture: Immortalising a Nation’s Awakening

Henri Cartier Bresson (L), Homai Vyarawalla, Kulwant Roy (R)

Image Credits:

History dissolves: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What salves our regret over taking birth without the confines of a particular period of time are tangible artefacts. Fortunately for old souls who feel outcast in modernity, time travel exists as polaroids: frozen friezes of public memory.

In the final moments of India’s strife for emancipation, the blood-lined streets and drawn faces of a people shedding shackles of centuries, were all recorded for posterity by three stalwarts of the lens. They painted the many moods of a nation on the move through space, separation, and history. Their unparalleled role in driving India towards its destiny comes alive in snaps of black and white.

That a day would come, when their life’s work would evoke deeper veins of passion in a country steadily moving away from its history, was little realized by them. But here we are: tracing the birth of our nation through the finer sensibilities of Roy, Cartier, and Vyarawalla. Let us recount the poignant moments in which India was conceived and revisit the turbulent life and times of these passionate photographers.

Kulwant Roy: Onwards To Freedom!

Image Credits: IPAF

As the demand for freedom reached a crescendo in the years leading up to 1947, one man wandered station after station, awaiting the Mahatma's arrival; a young photojournalist from the would-be Nation, playing his part in shaping the vision and ethos in which the new-born country would be rooted. This was Kulwant Roy, and often do we find ourselves accompanying him from the side-lines, for his photos are a regular feature in our History textbooks.

'Gandhi And Jinnah Arguing’, Roy, 24/11/39, Image Credits: IPAF

Roy’s camera-clad figure, and singleness of purpose, soon acquired limelight within the Nationalist circles- “Oh! There’s the man! He who has determined to immortalize these years of light, sound, and fury. Here is the man who will remind the coming generations of our exploits, for years henceforth-” was a reverberating sentiment. However, for all his insight, and a knack for historicity, much of Roy’s work lounged in obscurity until very recently. India Photo Archive Foundation has worked with photographer Aditya Arya to recover the negatives that Roy left behind.

Pt. Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sardar Patel, Roy 1946/Image Credits: IPAF

The memories thus salvaged, as well as the better known snapshots, are a treasure trove for history aficionados. From Nehru’s placid resolve at conferences, to the Mahatma’s stature and command descending trains before him, Roy’s artistry leaps out of the lens and across the bounds of time. This wistful poetry of pre-independence years wrought by him is a marvellous legacy of where We, as a nation, are coming from.

R-L- Lord Mountbatten, Nehru, Sardar, and Acharya Kriplani, Roy 1947/Image Credits: IPAF

Roy began his career as an employee of the Royal Indian Air Force, snapping lush views of his Lahore hometown for the Company, before his lifelong romance with photos drew him to the North of modern day India. There he set up ‘Associate Press Photographs’, the company that singlehandedly produced much of what survives as our collective memory of the Delhi of 1940’s: Congressmen flocking the streets as future beckoned, the Mahatma greeted by throngs at Nizamuddin Railway Station, of elations, elegies and heartburns that coloured our Movement for Independence.

Meerut Congress session, Roy 1946/Image Credits: IPAF

The focal point of Roy’s vision was the radiance of intellect and devotion to Motherland exuded by the Mahatma.Year after year he would be drawn to the station at Nizamuddin to watch the Mahatma alight, as a place of worship draws the pious. These photographs reflect the artist’s reverence for the towering persona of the Mahatma.