History in the taking: lost photos that reveal India's making

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The rediscovered life's work of a pioneering photojournalist cast new light on Gandhi, Partition and Mountbatten

Aditya Arya had every intention of opening the six tightly bound crates that his elderly uncle brought to his house in Delhi in the early 1980s, telling him they were to be gone through whenever his young nephew had the spare time.

Two-and-a-half decades later, the crates lay in Mr Arya's home, yellowing and collecting dust, as he travelled the world on assignments to cement his reputation as a photographer.

It was only in 2007 when he prised open the first crate to learn what his uncle, Kulwant Roy, who had himself been one of India's first serious photojournalists, had left him.

Inside the six boxes were neatly-stacked prints, negatives and thousands of rare and never-before-seen images featuring the key figures in Indian history from the 1930s, through to Indian independence, Partition and Jacqueline Kennedy's visit to India in the 1960s.

There were informal, intimate images of Lord Mountbatten, Britain's last viceroy, sitting with Indian and Pakistani nationalists on either side of him in 1947, with a map in front of him on which he would draw a division line that would lead directly to the Partition of India and Pakistan, as well as portraits of Mountbatten's photogenic wife, Edwina, affectionately holding onto India's first prime minister, Nehru, while he saw the couple off at the airport in the dying days of the Raj.

Another picture captured Mahatma Gandhi in a heated debate with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a man with whom he was seldom seen and who went on to found Pakistan.

Jackie Kennedy was shot in a spontaneous moment, giggling as she shared a joke with Nehru, while another intimate portrait captured Nehru as he tenderly curled his hand around his young grandson, Rajiv's neck. A never before seen picture of Gandhi was taken in the North West Frontier – now a Taliban stronghold – alongside Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Muslim Pushtun leader and ardent Gandhi follower who was dubbed "the Frontier Gandhi" for his adherence to non-violent policies.

The treasure trove of images – 5,000 of which have so far been documented – form a visual history of India that is more comprehensive than any other national photographic archive covering this period. Its existence has excited historians who believe the archive may shed new light on key moments in India's independence movement.

Nearly 500 of Roy's monochrome photographs have been compiled in a new anthology, History In The Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy, by Mr Arya and Indivar Kamtekar.

Mr Arya said the moment he opened the first crate, he felt a sense of urgency to "rescue" these photographic works from ruin.

"When I was first given them, I was in my early 20s and I was trying to find myself as a photographer. I was really busy, travelling the world, and I didn't open the crates, although I lugged them around with me every time I moved home in Delhi.

"I kept thinking, 'One of these days I'll open these boxes.' I had a feeling that when I did, there would be no looking back, as I knew my uncle had lived through important historical moments and that he and about six or seven other photojournalists had come to know India's leaders.

"When I finally opened the first box, I was horrified at their deterioration, there was the vinegar syndrome [the deterioration of photographic chemicals], there were white ants, there were silverfish. They gave me the jitters so I immediately started emptying them and I've documented thousands, although there is still a few thousand to go," he said.

Born in 1914, Roy grew up in Lahore before joining the Royal Indian Air Force, where he specialised in aerial photography. After being discharged, he returned to Lahore, but moved to Delhi in 1940 where he set up a studio which later expanded into a fully fledged agency.

A few years previously, he had followed Gandhi in his travels around India in a third-class train compartment. Over his career, he took innumerable iconic images of the Indian independence movement and the early years of the Republic of India.

Yet during the latter years of his career, he was eclipsed by a new breed of aggressive young photojournalists. The decorous press conferences and chummy familiarity with politicians which early Indian photojournalists like Roy had enjoyed were giving way to the scrum, a feature Roy bemoaned. He eventually gave up photography in response to this change and his reputation faded into obscurity. Roy was a frequent visitor to Arya's parents' home in New Delhi and would regale the family with stories of his work over dinner.

"He lived nearby and he'd come to our home for a meal every day. He told us of his interaction with Gandhi and Nehru, and how one time, his assistant was asked to ignite the flash powder – flashes needed powder at that time – and instead of using one teaspoon of powder, the assistant used seven teaspoons. There was a big explosion and Nehru went flying. He was very upset and said, 'Are you trying to take my picture or kill me?'"

By the time he died of cancer, Roy was virtually penniless and had no wife or children, choosing to leave his immense photographic collection to the young Mr Arya, with whom he was particularly close. Only now is its magnitude being fully appreciated.

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