Kally's open shutter

While rummaging through the wares at a jumble sale in Isipingo I happened upon a small Kodak Postcard camera, which I bought for sixpence — I was consumed by my newly found interest in photography and spent almost all my free time pursuing the art form.”

Ranjith Kally was 21 when he made this important purchase and one of the first pictures that he took with it is one of his most endearing images — his mother draped in a lightly coloured sari, sifting through lentils on an old newspaper on the floor of their home.

Born in 1925 in Isipingo, Durban, Kally worked in a shoe factory for 15 years before he began a full-time career as a professional photographer.

While working at the factory Kally supplemented his income by photographing social events for The Leader newspaper on weekends.

“I remember doing my first enlargement in a makeshift darkroom in Plowright Lane, not far from The Leader offices in Pine Street, Durban.
We got under way at 8pm and at 4am we were cursing as the sun began rising, jeopardising our print. In the early days we had to envisage a whole host of diverse criteria before pressing the shutter. But modern photography has taken the ‘sting’ out of photography.”

Kally quit work at the factory to join Golden City Post and Drum, where he worked from 1956 to 1965 and again from 1968 to 1985. It was in these years that he produced some of his most brilliant and insightful pictures, working alongside the famous Drum bureau chief for Durban, the late GR Naidoo.

These years saw him photograph the likes of Monty Naicker and Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Treason Trial; the mixed glamour couple of the Fifties Miriam Makeba and Sonny Pillay; Oliver Tambo in Lesotho; Alan Paton and Sushila Ghandi in a quiet moment together; Chief Albert Luthuli under house arrest and Luthuli receiving news about winning the Nobel Peace Prize. “Of all the people I’ve photographed, Chief Luthuli has been the highlight of my career. He was such a jovial, humble person and would pose in any way that you asked of him.

“While Luthuli was under house arrest, the special branch would watch the front of the house and we would sneak in through the back. At the time I worked with Bobby Harrypersadh and Mrs Luthuli would refer to me as ‘small Bobby’. We had a great relationship with him,” reflects Kally nostalgically.

In 1952 Kally came third out of 150 000 entries in an international competition held in Japan and in 1967 he was selected for membership to the Royal Photographic Society in London.

His work has been included in exhibitions such as In/Sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present (Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1996), Margins to Mainstream: Lost South African Photographers (Grahamstown Arts Festival, 1994, and the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham, England, 1995). His work was also published in catalogues and books including: Sofíatown Blues (1994), From Canefields to Freedom: A Documentary on Indian South African Life (2000) and Fatima Meer’s Portrait of Indian South Africans (1969).

The two photographs included in In/Sight challenge the racial stereotypes of the Fifties. The one depicts two older white men drinking in a shebeen in the predominantly “non-white” area of Cato Manor, while the other immortalises former stunt motorcycle rider Tommy Chetty and his partner, Umbarani Naidoo, riding the “Wall of Death” in 1957. Described in the catalogue as “a shy and attractive young girl who was at one time too nervous to ride a bicycle, [Naidoo] has won fame throughout Natal, South Africa, by her daring escapades on the Wall of Death. And while other girls of her age are wondering who their next ‘date’ will be, she often wonders if she will be alive for another date.”

In using the example of Malek Alloula’s Le Harem Colonial, a study of early 20th-century postcards and photographs of Algerian harem women, Edward Said explains that Alloula “sees his own fragmented history in the pictures” and in revisiting the images in his book through his text, “we have the recovery of a history hitherto either misrepresented or rendered invisible. Stereotypes of the Other have always been connected to political actualities of one sort or another, just as the truth of lived communal (or personal) experience has often been totally sublimated in official narratives, institutions and ideologies.”

It is what Said goes on to describe as “restoring of the lived historical memory” and the representation of the “unofficial” stories of “experiences of the Other” that this exhibition seeks to redress — the exhibition is as much about recognising Kally’s ability as it is about a collective memory of a community.

In a fascinating story behind the image of the golfer Papwa Sewgolam drinking tea from a flask in his car, Kally relates how Sewgolam was not allowed to use the tea room in the clubhouse that hosted the tournament because of the “whites only” policy. Sewgolam eventually went on to beat Gary Player in that tournament, but also had to be content to receive his winning cheque outside in the rain.

Kally has an uncanny ability of capturing people, from the famous to the ordinary, at their most relaxed —making his presence invisible to the viewer. In so doing he is able to capture the most humane, emotive portraits.

In recalling Meditation, Varnasi, India, a photograph he took 30 years ago, Kally says: “I was four to five feet away and took 10 to 12 shots of this man deep in meditation. He was so deep in concentration that he didn’t even hear me or the camera; looking at him in that state even made me feel calm and peaceful.”

The exhibition also features a photograph of the spiritual calmness of early morning bathers along the river Ganges in Varnasi and the photographer’s sensitive and private black-and-white images of the Indian shanty town, Tin Town (formerly on the banks on the Umgeni river, Durban).

These are contrasted with images of the vibrant urban life of the Fifties and Sixties that include a photograph of Tony Scott, the British clarinet player at that famous jazz club, the Goodwill Lounge in Durban, once owned by the colourful “Pumpy” Naidoo.

While Kally’s works have caught the eye of international curators, this will be his debut solo exhibition in a career spanning almost 60 years.

Reflecting on his career Kally says that he has “no regrets and no grudges. Apartheid was tough on me like most black people. As far as photography is concerned, there is no other profession in the world like it. I tried capturing emotion in my pictures and I have been successful some of the time. But I will take pictures all of the time.”

A decade after it was reported in a Durban newspaper that Kally intended to exhibit, he finally gets to realise his dream.

Ranjith Kally works as a freelance photographer in Durban and will turn 80 next year

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