It might seem incredible that a single lens could glance with equal bonhomie into the eyes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord and Lady Mountbatten and Dev Anand, reproducing their faces in evocative and intimate portraits. But acclaimed photographer Jitendra Arya’s camera was as intrepid and bohemian as its owner, capturing Indian personalities like MF Hussain, Ravi Shankar, and Dilip Kumar, as well as powerful international figures like British Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, Clement Atlee, and Grace Kelly. Arya’s skill as a portraitist has been compared to the versatility of Yousuf Karsh, who has been widely regarded as one of the best photographers of the 20th Century.

A selection of Arya’s eclectic oeuvre will be displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai from September 2 to October 8. Titled Light Works as a nod to the photographer’s penchant for using light with special diligence, the exhibition is meant to be a retrospective that stitches together the story of an evolving artist, a budding film industry, and a changing nation.

Maqbool Fida Hussain for a photo feature titled ‘Artist at work’ in the Illustrated Weekly of India, 1963. Photo credit: Jitendra Arya

Light Works has been curated by photo historian Sabeena Gadihoke, who met Arya in 2010 when she was working on a dissertation about Indian photography. “I was a nuisance in the sense that I was landing up at his home every day, but he showed me almost everything that he could. He had meticulously put away his work. It was all there,” said Gadihoke.

The photographer’s diligent effort at preserving his work inspired his wife Chhaya Arya to exhibit the photographs. “He never took special effort to talk about himself. I never touched his photographs until his death in 2011, but the whole house is full of boxes and boxes of his work. One day, I thought, they will all just fade away and no one will know about Jitendra. So we decided to exhibit the images,” Chhaya Arya said.

Pandit Ravi Shankar, Studio portrait in Chiswick, London, 1955. Image credit: Jitendra Arya

Chhaya Arya approached Gadihoke in 2014 for curatorial assistance. “It took us almost 2-3 years to get this show together because we sifted through around 7,000 pictures to pick 250-300 photographs for this show,” said Gadihoke. “I’ve selected portraits keeping in mind the aesthetics of the images so as to pay homage to a master’s work, and yet there several other images which have been picked not because they are beautifully taken, but because they define a period of history.”

Born in 1931, Arya was active from the 1950s to the turn of the millennium, and adapted to several social, cultural and technological shifts. “I feel that his work straddles some very important events in the history of this country. He has clicked some wonderful images in England, such as pictures of Indian film stars strolling in Hyde Park, and also has a large body of work in India. He was equally comfortable there and here,” said Arya’s son Kavi, who has been actively involved in the restoration and digitization of the images.

Candid portraiture

Arya discovered his passion for photography at the age of 10 when he was gifted an Eastman Kodak Brownie camera, and was 15 when his portrait of Kenyan anti-colonial activist Jomo Kenyatta was published in the Colonial Times. When a young Arya decided that he wanted to pursue photography professionally, his father Prabhu Dayal Arya took a loan against the advice of his family to ship his son to London in 1948. “His father told him that a man must follow his inclination, and that is a phrase that my dad remembered right up till last days,” said Kavi Arya.

Following his natural inclination towards photography, Arya assisted Hungarian-British photojournalist Michael Peto, who was involved in the production of a documentary by Sir Alexander Korda on Jawaharlal Nehru. Although his candid portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru earned him acclaim in India, Arya’s career catapulted with the portraits he clicked in Kenya on the sets of John Ford’s Mogambo (1953) starring Clark Gable and Ava Gardner.

Clark Gable and Ava Gardner on the sets of Mogambo (John Ford, 1953) East Africa, December 1952. Some of these photographs were published in Life magazine in 1953. Image credit: Jitendra Arya

While the images Arya clicked on the sets of Mogambo and George Cukor’s Bhavani Junction (1956) helped him establish his professional reputation as a portraitist, he also captured production stills that now serve as important historical documents. “The images he clicked stand out because cinema historians are very interested in the evolution of the process of production, and these images give you a sense of the production process then,” said Gadihoke.

Arya lived with his family in Chiswik, London at the time, and his flat there became “the hub of a lot of Indian engagements, because a lot of Indians who visited England stopped at his home,” said Kavi Arya. “Around that time, he also frequented India House in London, which was an embassy of sorts, and became friendly with several Indian actors. So he’s got very rare pictures of Raj Kapoor and Nargis, Dilip Kumar, and Ashok Kumar,” he said.

Arya’s camaraderie with the subjects he clicked ensured that his portraits seemed like emotionally intimate renditions, capturing the private sides of public personalities. “Whenever Jiten was photographing personalities, he never felt they were special people. He could actually relate with them on their level,” said Chhaya. Arya’s association with the Nehru family, for instance, helped him capture intimate moments – such as Indira Gandhi cooking a meal for her father in the kitchen – which were part of a spread for the Illustrated Weekly of India.

Jitendra Arya and Dev Anand on the location shoot of Manzil, Simla 1959. Jitendra Arya

Arya moved back to India in 1961 when his wife Chhaya was offered the lead role in Guru Dutt’s Sahib, Biwi aur Gulaam, and joined the Times of India as Chief Photo Editor, a position he held till 1983. Proficient with black and white imagery, Arya made the transition to colour photography when he was required to shoot features and covers for the Illustrated Weekly of India, Femina and Filmfare. He was also was one of few Indian photographers to make the transition from analogue to digital. Armed with the conviction that imagination was more important than technology, Arya used several techniques to add character and depth to his photographs, often using his wife’s sarees as backgrounds.

The portraits clicked by Arya are also marked by his focus on light, shadow and tone. Influenced by the aesthetics of Rembrandt, his use of light, and emphasis on back lighting, is particularly remarkable in all his portraits. “He played with light in the studio, but he was a great believer in daylight, too. Even the studio which he eventually built in our house in Bombay, where he shot most of the covers, had windows facing the sea, and huge amount of daylight,” said Kavi Arya.

Arya’s work paved the way for several younger photographers, and elevated commercial photography to a structured and respected profession.Many of the photographers of later generations, including Gautam Rajadhyaksha, believe that he brought respectability to the profession in the country. He was employed by no less that the Times Group at the salary of an editor and was given the respect due to an editor,” said Kavi Arya.

Suchitra Sen on the cover of Filmfare, 1960s. Image credit: Jitendra Arya

Although Arya is primarily known as a master of portraiture, Gadihoke believes that some images clicked by him can also be pegged as the beginnings of fashion photography in India. “He photographed so many women for Femina, which then became a way for them to become models, actors or air hostesses and enter glamorous professions,” said Gadihoke. “It was a time when the still image of the star defined the star, and Jitendra Arya is a very important author of stardom, just as much as a cinematographer or a director.”

Chhaya Arya hopes that Light Works will make a younger generation aware of the range and impact of Arya’s work. “Jiten knew exactly when to click a picture, the precise moment that would lead to a perfect shot. The frame had to be perfect, and only would he shoot. I think that it’ll be an eye opener for the current generation, and for young photographers, to see how images were crafted before digital photography arrived on the scene,” she said.

Jitendra Arya, Studio Portrait with Linhof camera, Bombay, Mid 1960s.