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BENGALURU — For a vast majority of Indians, the Hindi film industry, or Bollywood, has articulated and influenced contemporary social traditions for decades. If Bollywood equals popular culture, photographer Jitendra Arya’s retrospective Light Works at National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru, is a trip through familiar, beloved territory. Curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, the retrospective features a selection of over 300 works from a career spanning nearly five decades. On loan from the restored archives of the Jitendra Arya Foundation, most are monochrome prints from his early career, several centered on figures from the Hindi film industry.
Arya grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. Largely self-taught, his photograph of Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan anti-colonial activist, was published in The Colonial Times when Arya was just 15. He subsequently moved to London, where he apprenticed with the Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto, and established himself primarily as a portrait photographer. In the 1960s, he moved with his wife Chhaya, an actor and radio artist, to India, where he became Chief Photo Editor at Times of India, the country’s largest English-language daily newspaper. His son, Kavi Arya, a professor in Mumbai, told me that his father received a salary reserved only for editors. This was unprecedented in an era in which photojournalists commanded neither the money nor respect of editors in the media. At the Times, he solidified his reputation as India’s foremost photographer of glamorous people, shooting a record 330 covers for Femina, a popular women’s magazine. Some of the young, urban women he shot for the magazine would go on to be models and film stars; being photographed by Arya was soon seen as a ticket to fame.
For Light Works, Kavi Arya, along with his mother and Gadihoke, deliberately chose mostly black-and-white images — specifically of certain personalities and from his father’s earlier works — because they wanted to focus on what he termed the “classic era,” a perceived golden age of Indian cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. He also emphasized that his father’s interest in classical music and the arts contributed to his aesthetic. (In an interview with Live Mint, Kavi Arya discusses the influence of Rembrandt in his use of light in photography.)
A privileged upbringing, which included owning a camera at the age of ten and time in London in an era when travel abroad was among the ultimate luxuries, contributed to his later ease with the rich and famous people he photographed. He formed close friendships with several movie stars; this intimacy seems to come across in his photographs of them. These cool celebrity images contrast with those of commanding political presences, such as members of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the fierce Indira Gandhi, striking with short hair.
Behind-the-scene anecdotes render a retrospective that is accessible to a general audience. For instance, viewers learn that for several portraits, especially of Bollywood women, Chhaya Arya’s sarees served as the studio background.
As for the photos themselves, I came away feeling mixed about their artistic value. Undoubtedly, Arya was a skilled photographer, and his subjects were famous and popular, then and now, adding to the interest in his archives. He had a good eye for framing, light, and composition, and a strong technical grasp of photography, honed by a practice spanning nearly 50 years. His comfort around the glamorous and elite members of Indian society, often entertaining them at his home, and his powerful position at the country’s top media outlet, facilitated his access to so many storied figures. One wonders what his career might have been had he not started from privilege?
The identities that fill the exhibition are largely constructed, as befitting those who live in the public eye. Raj Kapoor is suave; Satyajit Ray is pensive, with a cigarette in his mouth; Ava Gardner is cool and sophisticated. There are candid shots, too; these make for more interesting viewing, if only because they offer a glimpse of what’s behind the subject’s facade.
The essayist and photographer Teju Cole writes in his column “On Photography” for The New York Times that photography is inescapably a memorial art, that in photographs, one moment is preserved, with those before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. Arya’s works function as a trip down that slippery slope of nostalgia. That many of the photos in Light Works record the Bollywood industry, which informs so much of the country’s cultural sensibility, is significant. Whether that is sufficient to elevate these photographs beyond documentation, to the level of fine art is arguable.
Light Works, Jitendra Arya: A Retrospective continues at National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru (#49 Manikyavelu Mansion, Palace Road, Bengaluru) through August 20.