The Arts

Ebrahim Alkazi: In His Mind’s Eye

The photography collection was to Alkazi a biographical trace, a philosophical enquiry, and a means of framing identity in a changing world.

In many respects, I met my grandfather, Ebrahim Alkazi (occasionally, nana), for the first time in 2000. He was close to 75 years old – but not a day older than 50 – and most people knew him far better than I did. The stories surrounding him were legendary, even cautionary tales about his adroit, intense sensibility and steadfastness, his unrelenting penchant for neatness, and his meticulous eye for detail in all that he did. I was 21, with a motorcycle.

I had just completed my Master’s Degree in Art History at SOAS in London and he passed through every now and then to his apartment/office in the city which housed part of an entity called The Alkazi Collection of Photography, a spectacular reserve that I would later gradually discover through the work of scholars, practitioners and indeed, him.

Homai Vyarawalla and E. Alkazi interacting during the exhibition, ‘Homai Vyarawalla: A Retrospective’, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi (August 27– October 31, 2010). Curated by Sabeena Gadihoke. Photo courtesy: Author

Walking up several flights of carpeted steps to his Ovington Square apartment in Central London,  nestled amidst a set of white buildings with black iron fences, I found that ‘home’ was more a storage facility for rare books and photographic albums, with several archivists, including doctoral scholars, doing the important work of documentation and meta-data inputs. Sophie Gordon, later to become Curator of the Royal Photography Collection at Windsor, was heading the team.

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It was mesmeric to observe the meld of the domestic with work space, a lifestyle I have learnt to further appreciate in current times. It was also an uncanny yet transforming experience to look at those sepia-toned images of Empire – to smell the Moroccan leather, to turn the brittle pages inscribed by army generals, civil surgeons, and administrative officers, all in charge of propagating some aspect of imperial ideology through images. It was unnerving to explore the very scale on which it was achieved.

L: Skeen & Co., ‘Tamil Girl’, Ceylon, Albumen Print, c. 1860 -1890, Alkazi Collection of Photography.
R: R.B. Holmes, ‘The Tribesman’,1920, Gelatin Silver Print, Alkazi Collection of Photography.

I had so many questions about the collection at that time. How was it amassed, and more importantly, why? What was being said about and through those images – among them a stilled transience captured in souvenir albums gifted to viceroys by  princes, wedding ceremonies of royal households and traditional teeka ceremonies for the heir apparent. How were these colonial, personal, social documents being analysed and to what end?

To the world, Alkazi was then primarily known for his pioneering contributions to theatre, his engagement with the modernists through a fine art collection and, as we have recently seen, his immersion in art through his own paintings that were showcased in a solo exhibition in England in the 1950s (albeit having left the Anglo French Art Centre in London for the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art nearby). Some of his theatre students had become great actors, his friendships with F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, among others, had been regaled through stories of experimentation, mischief, toil and hard work in forging a ‘modern’ identity in a new, post-Independence India.

Also read: Ebrahim Alkazi: The Early Stirrings of a Renaissance Man

But in the midst of all this, how did he start building a photographic reserve at a time when such archives were virtually unheard of, especially in the subcontinent, and very few museums had started conceptualising photography collections of their own – especially as works of art rather than documentary reportage?

The answers were in the wind, as it were, and I would need to chase down histories that were intermittently aired – stories about his own past, the coming of World War II, the Emergency, the Gulf Wars, and the family’s migrations that took place every few years in an attempt to find a suitable, and safe location.

Alkazi, aged 17, in a traditional Arab outfit. Photo: Courtesy of the Alkazi Theatre Archives

Alkazi was born in Pune, but his family came from Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century. One of the earliest photographs I saw of his, only some years ago, was in a dishdasha, looking much like Lawrence of Arabia, with a downturned gaze, very unlike the grandfather I knew who preferred to look you directly in the eye  and (sometimes) smile.

I wondered about this portrait as an object too, knowing there were reservations about image making in Islam, and how by doing so, one was taking the place of god as the single author of time.

But how else was a migrant family, which had left everything behind, and was engaged in the spice trade in Bombay – to retain its past or at least frame its present for future generations if not through images that sought to capture its cultural heritage in a new land? How was the family to claim its own ways of self-representation, without the studio becoming a place of coercive authoritarian ideologies as I had seen in the 19th century photographs at his apartment, and so much of which we continue to see in images of petrified subjects, staring in a daze into the lens upon instruction even in the present.

Alkazi’s family story, which was one of community building, the consolidation of a small Arab community in India, would stay with him for life – post-Partition when almost his entire family, barring Alkazi and two siblings, moved to Pakistan – where they were visited by King Faisal – or indeed subsequently when they moved yet again in the mid-1950s to Beirut in an apartment complex overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, where, as my uncle recently recalled, the family spoke in Bombay-Hindi, Arabic and English with a fluency and repartee that to the visitor sounded otherworldly!

But it was also in this mix of language and gesture that another, conversational worldview was scripted, one that imagined a complex universe – fragmented yet syncretic, interwoven with human interaction, faith, and co-existence. The home, however, was idealised and safe. The world was not. And some years after, nearing the 1980s, they would be forced to move again to places further west.

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In the post-War years, after Bombay had become a docking yard for the Allies for some time, it had also become an amalgam of cosmopolitanism, trade, and avant-garde cultural explorations through the JJ School, with pioneers like Mulk Raj Anand and Kekoo Gandhi steering the scene.

Front page of the exhibition catalogue for ‘The Family of Man’. Photo: Dinales/CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the early photography exhibitions that impacted Alkazi was Edward Steichen’s, The Family of Man, from MOMA, which was mounted at the Jahangir Art Gallery in 1956. Though the exhibition was heavily critiqued internationally, what he saw in it was the instinct for a universal language in visuals that tried to present a unifying image but which left out regional specificities; he saw the power of the photograph as a collective document, a psychological tool as well as a social mobiliser.

He saw here how images of everyday life could be inscribed with verses from Homer and Virgil, the texts of Plato, the Bible, Russian proverbs and the humanist ideals of authors like Bertrand Russell, all within the same complex – existence as the responsibility of all.

This moment was in the nature of an early calling, drawing his attention to the world of film and photography as vital mediators and channels for expression and communication that had the power to change  perceptions;  that, with editing and censoring, could influence the course of history and causality. Of course, it would be many years later, following his time as the director of the National School of Drama, and upon establishing the Art Heritage gallery in Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam with my grandmother Roshen, that he would finally settle down to consistently collecting photography with passion and commitment.

K.L. Nursey [Attribution], Pages from an album [Congress Party Photographs], Gelatin Silver Prints, 1930s, Alkazi Collection of Photograph

It was only after he became a non-resident in the 1980s that he embarked on this trajectory – when he once again, like his mobile family, became a citizen of world cultures in order to absorb trajectories that would not ghettoise and isolate the meaning of belonging but embody a profoundly liberal understating of place and identity – one that accommodated the realities of always being on the move and a life marked by plurality.

In the 1980s, primarily the apartment in London, and  in the 1990s a gallery in New York named Sepia International, together with his flat in Delhi, would also become holding, research, commissioning and exhibition spaces for Alkazi’s growing collection of South Asian photography, a geographic entity that was more a subject for discovery through images – an evolving new cartography.

Alexander Gibson [Attribution], India Scrap Book – The Gibson Collection, Albumen, Photogravures and Gelatin Silver Prints, 1860-90s. Alkazi Collection of Photography: 95:0035

His early photography collections together with the representation of contemporary photographers, many from India in the New York space, brought him closer to unearthing the histories of image-making, image-taking and image-construction, which transformed drastically in the subcontinent with the coming of liberalisation, cable-television and dial-up internet connections in the 1990s, together with the shifting, international political climate – on the one hand, the Gulf War, and the other within India, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the demolition of Babri Masjid and the communal violence that followed, the Kargil War and pogrom at the start of a new millennium that were always read, somewhat scarily, as connected events through multiple arcs of occurrence.

And it was at this time that I finally met my energetic, towering, disciplinarian grandfather – in what would be the last 20 years of his life, when he decided once more to re-settle in India, post-9/11, shocked and dismayed by the turn of events.

By this time, Alkazi had the distinct, shifting mannerism of a Londoner, a New Yorker, a Mumbaikar and Dilliwala – walking the streets of Bloomsbury one day, then Manhattan, Nepean Sea Road and Tansen Marg – a resident, a national, a traveller, a seeker. He realised that in some respects, South Asian communities outside South Asia never really saw themselves as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’, but were affiliated to a place called South Asia through their family histories in more complex ways – through the trajectories of  ‘postmemory’ in the diasporic community.

Also read: Remembering Ebrahim Alkazi, the Master Who Helped Shape Modern Indian Theatre

However, what made him decide to resettle in India once more after almost 20 years was the fact that the shock of the image of the twin towers collapsing, was exacerbated by the magnification of racial and religious tensions in a wholly different world dominated by online information, data, live-streaming and corporatisation of news.

And it was then that the idea of a new repository for  images from the region that were thus far not available in the region – seen only in British/European libraries and museums in the west for the most part, which were difficult or exorbitant to access – needed to be ‘repatriated’. It seemed to me that he felt that those images were not meant for museums or galleries alone, but for the communities from which they were taken, and to which they were rarely accessible. Could this be changed? And how would our narratives transform?

Felice Beato’s ‘Mosque Picket’ [Chauburia Mosque], Delhi, from the album ‘Mutiny Sites and Europe’. The Alkazi Collection of Photography

Though Alkazi saw images by Bourne and Shepherd as immaculate representations of the Kashmir valley, he read alongside them the book of Ananya Jahanara Kabir, titled Territory of Desire, which spoke of the distortions of historical representation. Though he considered the image archive of the 1857 uprising to be a form of Victorian interests in ruins, he read alongside them the personal testimonies of the courtesans and the gendered testimonies within colonial histories that needed to be further expanded, not only thorough ‘official’ documents but also through those emanating from personal chronicles.

And though he saw portraiture as an art historical genre coming from painting, in early photography he understood its application as the continuance of debasing forms of ethnographic and scientific scrutiny, if not surveillance, in the region from an earlier time. The archive gradually moved to Delhi and I was tasked with scouting for locations, accompanying builders, and then helping to organise a new home, a new team and staff; and it was growing well beyond the mandate of one vision to a multiplicity of ideas and collaborations (which is perhaps the subject of another article).

But changing the context or place of the archive in order to alter the perspective was not a new means of approach for Alkazi;  it came from his days in the theatre —  improvising the trajectory, taking meaningful liberties from that which was scripted, to staging, or devising new ways of telling a story for a changing  world, in anticipation of an interconnected arts space which could amalgamate different disciplines across different timelines.

In a way, that span of time is a montage, exposure upon exposure that is layered till this very moment, and it may indeed take me more time to see beyond as he is not yet a memory, but very present. Looking back at one instance when we were sitting together, examining a staged image from 1858, I recall him saying, “Don’t take this moment for granted, the photograph is always partial, it can always tell a lie.”

Rahaab Allana is Curator, Alkazi Foundation; Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (London); Honorary Research Associate at University College, London. He is also the founding editor of PIX and is currently guest editing individual volumes for Aperture Magazine and Tulika Books.