Photographs are such a huge part of our lives now days that we take them for granted -we capture images of our food, our pet’s antics and other memories every single day. In the 1940’s and 50’s cameras were a rarity especially for Indian families and important milestones were usually captured in a studio. A few grainy black and white pictures are all that remain of those times for most families. This is one of the reasons why the photographic works of Ranjith Kally are so important, as they document a large part of our recent history. (Featured image above Rajwanthia Kally, the photographer’s mother)
Over a period of 50 years, Ranjith Kally, a photojournalist, has documented the political, social and everyday events that occurred in the lives of South Africans. His portraits include subjects like Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Monty Naicker, Alan Paton as well as Indian market traders and fishermen. This wealth of images serve as a photographic history of the ‘non-white’ (Black, Coloured and Indian – as designated by apartheid) community especially those that came from Kwazulu Natal.
Kally was born in 1925, into a humble working class family living in Isipingo. He left school after Standard Six and worked in a shoe factory to help support his family. While working, he bought a second-hand camera and discovered a talent for photography. With the aid of photographic magazines, he taught himself dark-room techniques, as well as composition and how to use different exposures.
To supplement his income, he worked as a part-time photographer for The Leader. He went on to become a full-time photojournalist working for Drum magazine and Golden City Post. Both these publications provided an important outlet for black writers and photographers such as Peter Magubane, G.R.Naidoo and Alf Khumalo. Kally was admitted to the Royal Photographic Society in London in 1967 and two of his images have been used in South African postage stamps. Although many of his photographs are well known, recognition for his talents came later in his life and his first solo exhibition was held in 2004 when he was 79. In 2013 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by University of Kwazulu Natal. He died in June 2017 at the age of 91.
Kally’s body of work spans decades and covers a vast array of subjects, some arising from assignments for newspapers and others from personal interest.
Kally’s father, Kallicharan and his grandfather had both worked as over-seers on the sugar cane estates. This, then was a place that Kally was familiar with and in 1957, he took a series of photographs for Drum magazine highlighting the working conditions on sugar cane farms. The image above shows a young girl working on the fields – child labour was a common occurance since families were so poor that children were sent to work to add to the family income. Hundreds of children, some as young as ten earned 10 pence for an eight hour day (Drum magazine 1957)
Ranjith Kally, Prizegiving, photograph (1965)
The iconic picture above shows the golfer Papwa Sewgolum receiving his trophy after winning the Natal Open in 1965. Sewgolum, a poor caddy had taught himself how to play golf with only the most rudimentary equipment. He won the Dutch Open in 1959, 1960 and 1963. Although he was allowed to compete internationally, the apartheid government prevented him from competing professionally in South Africa. In 1963, a special concession allowed him to play in the Natal Open which he won. Since the Durban Country Club was segregated, Sewgolum was not allowed to enter and he accepted his trophy while standing outside in the pouring rain. In 1965, he again won this tournament, outplaying Gary Player who had already won many international competitions. Once again, he was forced to accept his trophy outside the club, a fact that drew the attention of international sports journalists to the inequities of apartheid. A year later, he was banned by the South African government, his passport withdrawn, and prevented from playing golf professionally.
Many of Kally’s photographs captured the everyday social and cultural lives of the Indian community. The image above shows one of the largest cinemas in Durban, the Shah Jehan which was owned by the Rajab family. For many Indian families, a night at the cinema, whether it was to watch a Bollywood or western movie was a great social experience.
Soccer was also popular and the historic Curries Fountain was one of the few sports fields that was available to Black, Indian and Coloured communities. The Cup Final refers to the soccer match played by the teams in the South African Federation League that represented black players. Each team also entered a contestant for a ‘beauty queen’ competition – three of the finalists are shown here on a car at a parade that took place before the match. Curries Fountain was more than a sports field since it was also a place where anti- apartheid rallies and mass meetings occurred.
Sonny and Miriam, is a photograph of Miriam Makeba and her husband, singer Sonny (Shunna) Pillay taken during their brief marriage. They met in London where they were performing ‘King Kong’, the first all black South African musical. The show brought international recognition for many South African performers especially Makeba.
Since he spent much time covering rallies, marches and other seminal moments in the fight against apartheid, Kally had good relationships with many of activists. The image above was taken during a break in the Treason Trial in Pretoria. It shows activist, Monty Naicker, with Nelson Mandela and Yusuf Dadoo behind him. Monty Naicker, a medical doctor was committed to ending inequality in South Africa and was at various times the president of the Natal Indian Congress and the South African Indian Congress. His activism led to him being imprisoned or banned several times in his life, and although he was not charged at the Treason Trial, he received several banning orders which curtailed his political involvement.
The photograph of Pathan, a member of the Crimson League gang is one of many that Kally took of the ‘Casbah’, the area in and around Grey Street. It was the place where many Indians had set up businesses and lived but it was also a place where many gangs operated. Other gangs were the Salots, the Dutchenes and the Styles gang, most of whom were involved in illegal gambling, extorting businesses for protection money and selling drugs.
Over the past few years some of the hundreds of photographs taken by Kally have been lost, but those that remain form an important part of our identity. It shows the Indian community of the past not just as sugar cane farm labourers but having other identities as performers, sportsmen, beauty queens, gangsters and anti apartheid activists. Many of Kally’s images also show the close cooperation and warmth that often existed between the different races before and during apartheid.
Ranjith Kally’s work has been documented in two books, Memory against Forgetting, and Women – South Africans of Indian Origin.
Rajab, K. & Kally, R. Memory against Forgetting.
Paul, D, Ranjith Kally – our unremembered reminder. Mail & Guardian. 2017
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