Kulwant Roy: A Pioneer of Indian Photojournalism

By India Photo Archive Foundation

India Photo Archive Foundation

Press photographer Kulwant Roy's prints and negatives remained forgotten in boxes for over twenty-five years after his death, until their inheritor Aditya Arya, a photographer himself, began cataloguing them. In the process, he discovered a rare and valuable visual archive, including many unpublished pictures, of a momentous era in India's history. This particular exhibition focuses on Kulwant Roy's journey as a photographer.

Mahatma Gandhi by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

"The images captured by photojournalist Kulwant Roy bring alive the years
which saw the birth of an independent India. The transition from
colonial dominance to freedom was a complex phenomenon made up of
multiple strands... Kulwant Roy was among the few photographers who
lived and worked through those exciting times, documenting the unfolding
of history through the eye of his camera as he travelled across the
country. Three decades after his passing away, the archive of his work
has been endowed with new form and meaning..."

- Manmohan Singh, 2009 (the then Prime Minister of India)

Aditya Arya narrating Kulwant Roy's storyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Meerut Congress Session (1946) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

"Photographs may be worth a thousand words but they are open to a thousand interpretations. Where images create an impression, these also provoke expression. Texts can tend to be didactic. Photos, never. The democracy of a lens remains unparalled. You see what was there. Nobody is telling you what may have happened, could have been."

- Ranjan Roy, journalist

Abul Kalam Azad at the Simla conference (1945) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

“Life is not black and white, it has colour. But why then do black and white pictures appeal in a way colour pictures do not. This is, I think, because black and white pictures are not made of those two polar opposites, those two extremes. Black and white pictures are about grey and the greys of life, the uncertainities, the dilemmas, the half tones of that intermediacy which is the name of most historic moments, the frame of mind that knows no name, the mood that cannot be put in a description, the texture of waiting, of expectation, of the undigited digit of life, the undated day, the unnamed sentiment, not ghulami (servitude) or azadi (freedom), but arzu (desire) and intezari (longing)...”

- Gopalkrishna Gandhi (the 22nd Governor of West Bengal who served from 2004 to 2009, and the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi)

Nehru giving autograph to Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

A prescient photograph taken in 1941 depicts Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (the then Prime Minister of India) signing an autograph for a young Kulwant Roy who stands attentively by his side.

What a joy it must have been for Roy, a photojournalist, to enjoy this close proximity with one of the founders of the Indian nation.

Seated from L to R: Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Acharya Kripalani. (1947) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

This intimacy with the freedom movement distinguishes Roy’s work - he was able to capture its most formidable personalities in their relaxed and unguarded moments.

Embedded in Roy’s photos is also an excitement and optimism, a sense that we are witnessing decisive, progressive moment in Indian modernity. Roy’s photographs remain a passionate document of the historical moment in which they stood.

Kulwant Roy, Royal Indian Air ForceIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Taking Photojournalism by the Helm

Kulwant Roy was born in 1914 in Bagli Kalan, Ludhiana, and educated in Lahore. Like other photographers at that time, Roy had no formal training in the medium. Instead, he learned on the job at Gopal Chitter Kuteer, the studio in Lahore where he worked.

Kulwant Roy in Japan, 1961, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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As a young man in the late 1930s, Roy began recording the activities of the Indian National Congress. He photographed Jawaharlal Nehru as a Seva Dal voluhteer in Kanpur, and was always there to receive Mahatma Gandhi at Delhi's Nizamuddin Railway Station.

Roy accompanied Gandhi to the North-West Frontier Province when he went to meet Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (known popularly as 'Frontier Gandhi'.)

Kulwant Roy with his Royal Indian Airforce Colleagues, 1940, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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In 1941, Roy joined the Royal Indian Air Force, training as an aerial lensman in Kohat, near Quetta. He was assigned to take photographs of the North-West Frontier Province region with special cameras mounted on the aircraft, an aerial mapping designed to help the British control tribal turbulence and the porous borders of the area.

Mahatma Gandhi with Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Kulwant Roy, 1938, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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This task was not without irony - a few years before, in the same region, Roy had trailed Mahatma Gandhi and Badshah Khan as they spread the message of non-violence. After defying a racist rule, Roy was summarily dismissed from his service in the Royal Indian Air Force, at which point he resumed photojournalistic work in Lahore.

Kulwant Roy's ID card with Associated Press Photos, 1963-01-01, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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Roy then, worked as a freelancer and eventually formed his own photographic agency, Associated Press Photos.

Mahatma Gandhi alighting from the train at New Delhi., Kulwant Roy, 1940s, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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Because the capital was gaining importance as a centre for press photography, Roy decided to shift his agency to Mori Gate in Delhi. For the next three decades, Mori Gate was the fulcrum of Roy’s vast and varied photographic career.

Kulwant Roy in New York, circa early 1960s, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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At Mori Gate, in Delhi - the Fleet Street of that time - he hired darkroom boys and assistants to help him. Perhaps this allowed him the freedom to embark on his epic and ambitious adventure which took him to more than 30 countries over a period of more than three years.

Sarojini Naidu, Kulwant Roy, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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In a scenario where internationally the visual language was being used to make political statements in the form of photo essays, Kulwant Roy was photographing single images. In all probability this was because of resource constraints and limited avenues for sale.

Roy with Mr. Swami in Japan, 1961, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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Yet this did not stop him from exercising his own creativity in the visual medium. Certainly he followed the complex trajectory of the freedom movement, its deliberations and personalities, its aftermath both tragic and triumphant, and remained a practitioner of news photography to the end. At the same time he explored his own ideas; his fertile imagination and unerring eye developed self-made assignments which led to an oeuvre of profound images.

Kulwant Roy, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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Kulwant Roy passed away in 1984. For a long time, his work was lost to obscurity. Only of late, through retrospectives, has he received due appreciation as one of most exuberant and prolific visual chroniclers of 20th century Indian history.

Kulwant Roy in Japan (1961)India Photo Archive Foundation

Speed was a critical factor for news photographers, within whatever parameters were imposed by their cameras. In the early days of his career, Kulwant Roy used a Speed Graphic, a heavy, sheet-film camera requiring great manual dexterity to handle. Later, he went on to lighter twin-lens cameras like the Rolleiflex; later still, the even more portable Leica, both of which offered larger numbers of exposures.

The composing of frames was a matter of split-second timing and it was only in the darkroom that the photographer could, if he so wished, adjust or re-align the heft and balance of his picture.

Bhulabhai Desai in a serious phone conversation at Birla House during the congress working commitee meeting, Kulwant Roy, 1947, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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There are two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer, said Ansel Adams; equally, in this symbiotic relationship, the viewer’s eye sees only that which the photographer chooses to show. The editing process is one of considered selection.

Mahatma Gandhi listening to a woman, Kulwant Roy, 1938, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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In the era before digital photography and the manipulations made possible by advanced technologies, all photographic interventions were manual. Unlike photographers like Cartier-Bresson who refused to crop his pictures, many including Kulwant Roy did so, to foreground the aspects they wished to emphasize. A wider picture could be cropped to centre its protagonists and give them more prominence.

Darkroom Photomanipulation Technique, Kulwant Roy, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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In fact, interventions could alter the very nature of the picture, transforming a group into an action portrait of a single person. That was a technique used by Roy on more than one occasion. He used cut-outs or simply painted out the background of the larger shot.

Jawaharlal Nehru waiting for his innings to start, Kulwant Roy, circa 1950s, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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In the process the image had uses other than as a news photograph; it could feature as a poster or a postcard which would be seen by a far wider public than its original audience. In the days when photography was principally black-and-white, a picture could be hand painted to add colour.

This is what Roy did for a French publication, to whom he sold an image of Pandit Nehru with his chin resting pensively on a cricket bat.

Sardar Patel, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Baldev Singh and other signing the Indian constitution, Kulwant Roy, 1950-01-24, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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The darkroom was used as a laboratory for preservation. Kulwant Roy annotated envelopes and preserved his earlier negatives; when in danger of deterioration, they were safeguarded by being copied.

Prime Minister stepping down from ramparts of the Red fort after unfurling the Nation flag followed by his speech on 15th August., Kulwant Roy, 1947-08-15, From the collection of: India Photo Archive Foundation
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The use of the word ‘copyright’ is interesting in this context. By-lines were not as widely prevalent then as they subsequently became, and hence the concept of copyright with its implication of possession of, and rights over, the material was a later introduction.

However, the retention of rights and the ability to sell photographs to more than one buyer became increasingly important to Kulwant Roy as a freelancer at a time when the overseas market was opening up. So much so that towards the end of his career, Roy stamped his pictures with his own name rather than that of his studio.

Gandhi And Jinnah (1939-11-24) by Topical Press AgencyGetty Images

That unattributed photographs were being unwittingly used by agencies outside the country is proved by the case of one of Roy’s most famous — and rare — pictures, that of Mahatma Gandhi and MA Jinnah engaged in what appears to be a disagreement. Though usually credited to the Hulton-Getty Archive/Getty Images, it belongs without doubt to Kulwant Roy.

[This photo is from the Getty Images collection.]

Women by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Sustenance and Personal Lens

The 1950s marked the decade of nation building with immense development projects and industrial construction taking place. As the state proudly recorded and publicized these achievements, photographers received lucrative assignments. 

Bhakra Nangal Power House (1954) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

The iconic images of the Bhakra Nangal dam, many of which were shot by Roy, became the best-known face of this development envisioned for the new nation state.

Bhakra Nagal project drilling operation at Bhakra dam by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Since many of the prominent newspapers had staff photographers, it was becoming difficult for individual photographic agencies to sustain themselves. For example, Captain D. Arjun worked for the Statesman, Amarnath for Indian Express, and N. Thiagarajan for the Hindu.

Restless by nature, and enjoying the freedom that came from being a bachelor, Roy sought to tap the growing demand for Indian photographs in foreign magazines, among them the German magazine Stern. He decided to travel to over 30 countries from 1958 to 1961, and made lists of pictures that he would take along with him, as well as contacts in each country that he would visit.

On the way to Kedarnath (circa 1950s) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

The visuals he took with him were of the people and landscapes of Kashmir, the pilgrimage to Amarnath, and other religious fairs and festivals. Roy funded his trip from the sale of his images, and continued to send photographs to the contacts he made abroad even after his return to India, until the late 1960s.

Kashmir Landscape (circa 1950s) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Roy’s travels included Japan, Hong Kong, USA, Panama, Brazil, and various European countries. The negatives and prints of these photographs were mailed back to his address in Delhi, fate was to strike a cruel blow to the unsuspecting sender. On returning to Delhi in December 1961, Roy discovered that his negatives had been delivered to his address, but were stolen.

Chamba by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

A shattered man, he spent the next few years looking for the negatives and prints in garbage dumps and open spaces around Delhi. He also put an advertisement in newspapers appealing for their return, but without any luck.

Kashmir Landscape (circa 1950s) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Roy continued his photography till the late 1970s, but his heart was no longer in his work.

Landscapes of Chamba, Himachal Pradesh (circa 1950s) by Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

In the late 1970s he was diagnosed with cancer and thus spent the last few years of his life in the company of close friends.

Kulwant RoyIndia Photo Archive Foundation

Significant among his later coverage were images of the war with China in 1962, and with Pakistan in 1965, shot directly at the front.

The seventh Non-Aligned Movement Conference held in Delhi was the last event that he photographed before he died in 1984.

Credits: Story

This online curation is based on extracts from the books:
Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy
by Aditya Arya and Indivar Kamtekar

History in the Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy
by Aditya Arya and Indivar Kamtekar
with essays by Sonam Joshi and Aditya Arya


One image by Getty Images included for visual reference.


Click here to visit India Photo Archives Foundation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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