In August 1998, I had curated a large exhibition of the great photographer Sunil Janah in New York. Kumar Kalantri, an eccentric desi with great energy had set up a large loft internet cafe and Gallery on Broadway near New York University He gave us a free hand to mount any show we liked.
I persuaded Janah to bring a few suitcases full of vintage prints from his home in Wimbledon, England. We mounted this exhibition with no funds, no frames and on Jerry-rigged foam core boards – a real jugaad job. To show his work in its complete form I decided to exhibit almost 600 images from the 1940s through the ’60s. It was the biggest retrospective ever of his work.
The New York Times gave us a full page review which was highly unusual for an exhibition in an informal space. We would be at the gallery every day and one day I walked in and saw Janah sitting on a chair with his cane talking to a cheery chubby visitor.
This was Harold Leventhal. He had seen the review in the New York Times and came down to the gallery to search out Janah. It turned out that he knew Janah from when he had been posted in Calcutta in the Second World War in the US Army Signal Corps in the mid-1940s. Leventhal who was a part of a group of Left-leaning American soldiers in the city and had met Janah through communist party connections.
Leventhal and Janah had not met since the 1940s and there was much excitement and jolly camaraderie on display that afternoon. Leventhal invited us all to his home on Riverside drive on the Upper West Side.
It was there I discovered his amazing history. We were leafing through albums of Janah’s photographs he had given to Leventhal (many of young ladies they had been dating and his collection of documents and publications of the Communist Party of India. Then Leventhal showed us the framed letters on the walls – one from Nehru addressed to Gandhi – introducing Leventhal who wanted to bring a group of African-American soldiers to meet Gandhi.
When they met, the first thing Gandhi asked Leventhal was “How is Paul Robeson?”
When the Americans were leaving after the end of the war, Leventhal managed to send US army surplus supplies through his Indian Communist connections to Mao Tse Tung, then fighting a guerrilla war in China. There on the wall was another letter from Mao thanking them.
Returning to the US, Leventhal set up a group called American Friends of India. Also hanging on the walls were paintings by Jamini Roy, MF Husain and Satish Gujral. Leventhal had organised their first exhibitions in New York in the 1960s, and Jamini Roy’s exhibition had been reviewed in Time magazine.
But it was his music history that was amazing. Before the war he had been an assistant to the composer Irving Berlin trying to pitch his songs to singers Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore and Peggy Lee.
On his return to New York he decided to manage the great American folk music legends – The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, The Mamas and the Papas and Pete Seeger, at a time when the McCarthy hearings had put the American Left under pressure. Leventhal was hesitant to talk about this era.
In 1963, he presented Bob Dylan in his first big town appearance at Town Hall in New York, and subsequently managed Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and Arlo Guthrie. His India connections were kept up when he brought Pete Seeger to tour in different cities. In New York, he produced early concerts of Ravi Shankar. Leventhal produced the film on Woody Guthrie “Bound For Glory” 1976, which won two Oscars.
At that lunch in his home, he loaned me a pristine copy of a Communist Party pamphlet of the Kisan Sabha meeting in Bezwada, Andhra Pradesh, in 1944. The text was by PC Joshi, General Secretary of the party, with photographs by Sunil Janah and drawings by Chittaprosad. I added that to the exhibition.
Sadly, I did not take up his offer to keep all the Communist Party literature he had at that time.
Nikhil Chakravarty had introduced Leventhal to Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in Calcutta for a meeting of the All India Congress Committee in 1945. Leventhal heard Nehru was a chain smoker and brought him a carton of cigarettes from the US Army store. On the day they went, it happened to be the day of Gandhi’s silence, and Gandhi noted in Gujarati on Nehru’s letter that they should come back another day.
I gifted him a set of Sahmat posters which I was happy to see up on his office walls along with the Dylan and Seeger concert posters. Circumstances prevented me from doing a long taped conversation for which I had run out and bought a small tape recorder. Harold Leventhal passed away in 2005.
While a legend in the music world, his Indian connections became less known and his photography connect with Sunil Janah completely unknown. I hope to find out where those albums of rare vintage Janah prints are now. His Indian art collection was auctioned in New York some years after his passing.
Ram Rahman is a photographer and curator who lives in New Delhi.