Growing up in the Sixties, I first began to know of Ranjith Kally through his work in The Post, a Durban newspaper, as well as in Drum magazine. Back then, he was among a group of Durban-based news photographers who became local household names: people like GR Naidoo, Moosa Badsha, Mickey Padayachee, Gopal Narainsamy, Ralph Johns and, later on, MS Roy, Morris Reddy and Steven ‘Even’ Naidoo.
I’d see him at football matches and other events at the Currie’s Fountain ground, often referred to as the Mecca of non-racial sport. Tall, angular, neatly dressed, he seemed to be locked into his own space as he moved around the ground making images.
As a “youngish” photographer in the early 1980s, I, along with Cedric Nunn, Deseni Moodliar and Pakhade Magwaza (part of the Natal Afrapix contingent), worked out of Omar Badsha’s darkroom in the Goodhope Centre, the same darkroom that was originally used by MS Roy, Mr. Kally and others in earlier times. This was just one of many links I had with him.
Later on our paths overlapped and we worked on various projects together, starting with an exhibition that I curated (and printed) for the Duotone Gallery, a small part of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. I’d seen some of his work in “The Indian in Drum” exhibition but only got an idea of the size of the body of his work when I had to interact with him over the selection for the Duotone Gallery.
As part of my brief as curator of the Duotone Gallery at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, I had to look after the exhibiting photographers. This entailed settling them into the hotel, ensuring they got to the venue and back, making sure that they were adequately fed, and generally looking after their wellbeing while at the festival.
Mr. Kally was always ready on time for his transport to the venue, impeccably dressed and carrying a few copies of his book to sell. I set up a table for him and his daughter and left them to deal with the traffic through the gallery. Occasionally as I moved between photographing different stages, I’d pop in to see if he was doing OK, if he needed anything and so on.
On the Saturday night during a stop-over at the gallery, Mr. Kally and his daughter were sitting there, nattering away. Then Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan, was wandering around the exhibition without any bodyguards. I said: “Hey folks, that’s the Minister of Arts and Culture looking at your work, go and talk to him”.
Mr. Kally and I wandered over and he says to Pallo, “You look like a falla that I photographed a coupla times”. Pallo gave him a ‘who-the-fuck-are-you, I’ve-never-seen-you-before -in-my-life’ kind of look. So I quickly stepped in and said: “Mr. Minister this is the photographer whose work you’re looking at and seem to be very interested in.”
Mr. Kally walked him through the rest of the exhibition, which is where I left the two of them. Later on we had a good giggle about the whole incident
He kept saying I should call him Ranjith. But out of respect, I just couldn’t. He had a thirty-year head start on me! As a compromise I started calling him ‘UnKall’, as in Uncle. We were both comfortable with that.
Mr. Kally was on the board of the Photography Department at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), which gave him access to their darkrooms on campus. After a printing session there we were walking back to his car and we met Len Rosenberg, head of Planning at DUT. Len was starting a project called Research of Curries and Surrounds (ROCS). This resulted in a joint exhibition and book about Curries Fountain in 2010.
I also did some initial work for him for an exhibition and book about the Nobel Peace Prize winners, one of whom was Chief Albert Luthuli. Mr. Kally had the definitive image of Chief Albert Luthuli standing in the doorway of his spaza shop in Groutville with a big, warm, beaming smile, having just been informed that he was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Along with then journalist, Bobby Harripersadh (who’s sister Leela, he married), they’d drive through the sugar-cane fields along dirt roads to get to the back of the Luthuli’s’s home, so as to avoid the ever-present and dreaded Special Branch who were camped out front.
Over time we collaborated on stuff. I’d print for him occasionally, visiting him in his quarters at the back of his daughter’s home in Overport in Durban. Some regarded him as being aloof, but as I got to know him better I saw that this was just a defence mechanism. He lived simply in a room with a bed, TV and cupboards, his camera equipment and a box of his precious negs that he salvaged from the many jobs he did for Drum magazine.
He said that after doing an assignment, he would head to the darkroom, process his film, make a few prints and then send those same negatives and prints to the Drum offices in Johannesburg. They eventually became a part of Bailey’s African History Archives. He had a good relationship with Prospero Bailey, the son of the founder of Drum magazine, Jim Bailey, and this allowed him access to his work at the archives when he needed to.
He’d keep the unused negs in a box. This box became his treasure trove. Later on, a rough catalogue was made of the same negs he retained. It was a visual record of events in Durban from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Eighties of the last century. I was lucky enough to see some of this broad range of pictures and get a sense of his oeuvre.
There were many iconic ones, including the joyous shot of Greta Dladla and Eric Dludla jiving with outstretched arms onstage in Alan Paton’s play uMkhumbane. I’ve seen it used several times – on album covers, even on a billboard advertising tinned fish! Sometimes it was credited to GR Naidoo, the Durban bureau chief for Drum magazine back then and sometimes to Mr. Kally. When I asked him about this he said they were standing next to each other when photographing the play and this may have led to the confusion about whose work it was as they both submitted it to Drum magazine at the time.
He was especially proud of the image of a Shembe devotee, that won him third prize in an international photographic competition in the Sixties. He later went on to become a member of the Royal Photographic Society in London.
His first solo show was at the Goodman Gallery in 2004, at the ripe old age of 79, where he sold almost two-thirds of the prints. More recently, collectors had started sniffing around, buying prints from him.
I’d seen other takes of familiar images like the one of Chief Luthuli, or of Fatima Meer, Alan Paton and others at a prayer service outside Central Prison in Durban; the tragic death of a young boxer being carried from the ring at Curries; Pumpy Naidoo and Tony Scott watching the drummer at a gig at the Goodwill Lounge with the then young pianist Lionel Martin Pillay; a young Sunny Pillay and his bride, Miriam Makeba; and pics of Durban musicians that I had just heard others talk about, like the jazz drummer Gambi George, pianist Christopher Josephs who later left for Sweden and guitarist Eric Gabriels, photos taken in a boxing ring at a memorable jazz festival at Curries in the Sixties – Clarence Khumalo, Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor, Lofty Schultz and a young-looking vocalist Count Wellington Judge, amongst others. It just goes on and on.
I saw the dummy copy of what became Memory Against Forgetting (Quivertree Publications), the book he did with Kalim Rajab. He was rightly proud of his efforts. Compared to his earlier book, 60 Years: The Struggle in Focus, Memory Against Forgetting is a more rounded more representative publication.
The Struggle in Focus was put out with a grant from Schabir Shaik – they were both golfing enthusiasts. He was still very active playing a weekly round of golf with friends up until a few years ago and, although moving around with a walking stick afterwards, I’d still run into him at openings, usually in the company of veteran journalist Farouk Khan.
I once asked him what kind of pictures he preferred to do and he unhesitatingly replied, “portraits and the ladies” because he felt he could enhance their beauty by using different locations in and around Durban. Also, he could take more time over such assignments. The care and craft of these photographs is reflected in a whole section he devotes to them in his first book.
In September 2015 we were given certificates of appreciation for our work on the Curries Fountain book – he’d provided the photographs of sporting and other social activities and I’d covered the political events at the venue. A few years later, after the exhibition in 2010, the photos were donated and hung up on the walls of the Curries Fountain boardroom where they remain.
At a big handover function where there were several speakers, a young band, two MCeess and plenty of food, we both ducked out early. As we drove home, he said that he hoped they kept a ladder handy ‘cos the pics were hung really high up on the walls and were difficult to view. Although grateful for the acknowledgement, he also felt that they could have given us a small honorarium, seeing that many others had gained financially from the event and we, being so-called freelancers were pretty much unemployable!
I bought two cameras and some flashes from him and he allowed me to pay him off over time — he understood the uncertain nature of income as a freelancer. He also gave me a Nikon FM2 that I had repaired and serviced. Towards the end of his time, he generously started giving me photographic books as well as his old Leitz Focomat enlarger.
One of the last discussions we had was about that box of negatives, that treasure trove, on top of the cupboard, next to the TV. We spoke about how the box contained so much local history and what was to become of his legacy afterwards. We both bemoaned the fact that there was no repository where work could be stored for future generations. He felt that it would be better to let it go somewhere safe, a place where it would be appreciated and preserved. Interestingly, he felt that David Goldblatt was right to let his work be kept outside South Africa to ensure its longevity. I didn’t agree with this, but could see his point about ensuring his work was referenced by others later on.
A contemporary of Alf Kumalo, Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani, the forgotten Ralph Ndawo, and other greats of the Drum era, Mr. Kally was not as well known as his contemporaries nationally, but he held his own in terms of his work.
Travel safe our Timer – the Celestial Gallery up Yonder awaits you.
Main Photograph: Ranjith Kally (1925-2017) courtesy of Ethekwinilivinglegends.com