Nostalgia and love for a visual history of Kashmir

  • Haroon Mirani
  • Publish Date: Feb 24 2019 3:14AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 24 2019 3:46AM
Nostalgia and love for a visual history of KashmirFile Photo

When a young engineer’s family shifted to an old house in Shivpora some 23 years ago, he found two old photographs in the attic. The beautiful pictures of Srinagar taken during the black and white days were nostalgic remembrance of good olden days. One depicted river Jhelum and another a traditional baker. The pictures initiated a tug of war between the two groups of family members as to who will own it.

Wasim ultimately relented and gave the picture to his aunt, with the promise to his disappointed father that he will get many more such pictures.

From old magazines, collections and from other people, he managed to get couple of old pictures that were equally fascinating.  “Now I wanted to get more. It didn’t deter that search at that time was extremely difficult in the absence of interest,” said Wasim at his hotel Madhuban busy editing a new batch of old photographs which he received from UK.

I remember it was that chochwor (traditional Kashmiri bread) of baker which started it all,” laughs Wasim who previously worked as an engineer in a major company outside the state, but later quit his job and became a hotelier here.

In the first year, he just got 10-20 photographs, but it kindled a quest for collecting more. His search for the old photographs of Kashmir stretched over the next two decades and has now undoubtedly resulted in the largest collection of old Kashmiri photographs at a single place.

“The deeper I went into the quest the more fascinating I found it,” he said.

Wasim, partnering the endeavour with his father Showkat Rasheed Wani, state’s former Power Development Commissioner, has collected over 8500 rare photographs of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. He even managed to get a clearer version of those initial two pictures.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and with thousands of pictures Wasim has built an encyclopaedia of visual history of the state. With images on almost every aspect of life, these photographs have documented the history of Kashmir in a visually appealing way. 

With archeological remnants being destroyed and old ways of living and architecture almost decimated, Wasim's collection is perhaps the only evidence of what Kashmir looked like 100 years ago. One can guess 1000 years back in time with these pictures, as not much had changed in Kashmir during that era. It is the closest to one can get to travel back in time in Kashmir.

To collect such a vital repository of Kashmir history, Wasim learnt a great deal along the way. “It was extremely hard to find the photographs but slowly I got the hang of it and avenues opened up eventually,” remembers Wasim.

Opportunities expanded more when internet made formal inroads in Kashmir in 2000. Over the years, Wasim has become a master of this trade and he knows how to find and get a rare picture. 

“I work by the principle of beg, borrow, buy and steal,” laughs Wasim. 

“When I come to know that somebody has the picture, I usually ask and plead him to give that to me. I am relentless on it unless he gives me original or a copy. If he doesn’t agree I request to let me borrow it and then make a copy. The third one is kind of borderline stealing. It happens within minutes I get the picture and make a copy often without the permission. 

This technique also enriched my collection. Once a famous UK-based website put a folder of Kashmiri pictures online for free viewing of its readers. Without wasting any time I downloaded an entire cache of pictures, which was more than a hundred. Had I not done that I would have never got those pictures as the website later removed the pictures and now they are nowhere to be found. When I fail in the first three ways, then I have no other option but to purchase the images, often at a cost.”

Showkat’s role has been to research and write the value-adding captions to these images. The collection has been a big drain on his resources too. With nothing more than a passion and no returns in sight for the foreseeable future, the quest often gets Wasim and his father frowns at home. 

“It is just the two of us in our entire family who love this exercise. Every other person in our family always advises us to stop what they call as nonsense,” said Wasim. But undeterred they continue to pile up the pictures for nothing more than a hobby.

Things started changing in 2006 when the government decided to open Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road and Wasim realised that he had more amazing pictures than what was being displayed by the government at that time. 

The father-son duo decided to hold an exhibition of old related pictures and when the then Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad heard about it, he offered it to be inaugurated by the President of India APJ Abul Kalam. “The exhibition was a huge hit. People loved it and wanted to see more,” said Wasim. 

“We did two exhibitions. The first one at SKICC had 350 pictures on display and another one at Exhibition Haat hosted around 500 pictures,” said Wasim lamenting that he could have shown more had there been such facilities or possibility of a bigger hall. 

From 2006 to 2014 Wasim organised seven exhibitions all around Kashmir and in Jammu.

 

In 2009 the father-son duo got an idea of bringing out annual calendar of the old pictures by the name of Nostalgic Kashmir. It is now an annual exercise and some lovingly wait every year for the calendar.

For the first few years, the calendar was distributed free among the people, but an incident changed their mind. Once Showkat went to bring some snacks and ironically the vendors packed the snacks in his own calendar. 

“The irony was that the calendar was of that very year. My father right at that time decided that no matter what happens we will sell it for a price, that way only people wanting to have it will buy it,” said Wasim, adding that every year they just print around a 100 pictures and the proceeds of the sale are put into making next years calendar.  “We don’t get any monetary benefit from it. The printing is extremely costly and we do it at one of the best printers in India. It is the same where J&K Bank prints its calendar.” The calendars kept on hitting the stands until 2014, when Kashmir was hit by devastating floods. Like the rest of the population in Srinagar, Wasim suffered heavily during floods.  “I lost thousands of rare pictures, but luckily I had a backup and later I managed to recover 90 percent of the lost pictures. In total, I lost 160 pictures, which could be retrieved and I had no back up of them,” said Wasim. “They were rare and are probably gone forever.”

Prior to that Wasim had started making frames of the pictures and he had completed and stored around 3700 frames at his home in Shivpora. During the deluge, all of them went underwater for days and dozens of trunks hosting them had to be taken out literally on carts for throwing away. With one frame costing around Rs 1500, the lost was more than Rs 55 lakh.

Nowadays he just laminates the valuable pictures as it saves space too besides being less costly and waterproof. The calendar has been an annual feature since 2011 and barring three years 2014-16, they have been regularly publishing it. “It took us months to recover as both of our houses and hotel was under water, so calendar was out of the question that year. A year later my grandfather expired and after that it was Burhan Wani agitation,” said Wasim.

Interestingly during 2014, Wasim had published the calendar that was based on the theme of bridges of Kashmir. Starting from Khanabal the calendar showcased all bridges ending up at Kohala, which was the entry point to Kashmir from present Pakistan side.  As the year witnessed a massive flood, many people blamed Wasim for bringing bad luck by publishing a calendar that only showed bridges. “From that time, I decided never to choose a single theme for the calendar. Now it is always general. I choose pictures on varied themes,” smiles Wasim. “Some among non-Muslim Kashmiris were also angry at the selection of Kohala Bridge.”

Some people have been taking cudgels with Wasim over captions. Once he received an angry letter from a Kashmiri Pandit who accused him of being communal by changing the using the name Takht-e-Sulaiman instead of Shankarcharya hill in one of his old pictures. A similar accusation was made for a photograph of Islamabad, who he said has always been Anantnag. Wasim wrote him a long reply giving reference from historical books but to no avail. “Now I don’t care about such half baked criticism,” said Wasim.

The only theme, which makes Wasim pull his hands away is politics. Though he has such photographs, but he has made this point never to showcase them keeping in view the always-charged atmosphere in Kashmir.

“There are many such photographs wherein the political leaders are present, whom people usually blame for so many things. And the situation often gets out of hand,” said Wasim. “So it is better to avoid such pictures.”

The saga of collections, exhibitions and associated stories with Wasim during the entire process is itself like material for dramas. The collectors had to fight it all at many times to drive their point.

Not only pictures related to politics usually invite trouble but there have been some other instances unrelated to politics too. “Once we showcased a photograph of Ladakh region in which the people were shown in their traditional dresses. That dress in today’s terms won’t be acceptable as it was half-naked,” said Wasim. “During the exhibition, a person of high office from Ladakh region charged on us and blamed us on defaming people of Ladakh. It was after so many explanations that he cooled down.”

Once Wasim exhibited the old photograph of local Ganemede business group. Soon a person claiming to be descendant of the owners in the photograph offered names and credit for the caption. Next year another person came barging in and demanded name be changed to his family, as the photograph is from their family. “Frustrated, I told my father, just keep this photograph locked forever. We don’t want to become punching bags for two groups of family members as they settle their scores,” said Wasim.

There has been some good side of pictures too. Once Wasim displayed picture of a hunter, which later was identified by one Raja Tasneem Khan as his grandfather Raja Umair Khan, once a ruler of a small kingdom who was later arrested by Dogra rulers.  Though he has such a large collection of Kashmir related old photographs, but Wasim says there are still many old pictures of Kashmir that he has been unable to lay his hands on. 

“According to my estimates, there can be anywhere between 3000 to 4000 pictures which I have not been able to collect yet. Most of them are in the UK and I need a full-fledged mission to get them,” smiles Wasim. Of these unexplored photographs, Wasim says 80 percent are in UK and rest of them are scattered all around the world. He also has been planning to visit UK to search for these photographs in universities and some private collections. 

Majority of the old pictures were taken by British photographers who used to come to Kashmir either for work or leisure. During those times many photographic clubs had come up in British India and Europe, where these photographers would be showcased and sold.  Kashmir seems to have caught the fascination of British photographers due to its natural beautify, handicrafts and culture, and there was always somebody to capture life in their cameras.

“Most photographed areas were Downtown Srinagar, which was the cultural and trade hub, then there was the areas along the bed of Ladakh, Sonamarg, Gurez and Skardu along old Central Asian route. Gulmarg was a favourite too and very few pictures were from Pahalgam and many of them were related to Amarnath Yatra. The photographers were also interested in old ruins of Martand, Awantipura, Naranag and Parhaspora,” said Wasim, describing the areas of interest of British photographers.

Some of the photographs of Martand are from the time when the main temple building was not even fully excavated. The photographers would usually develop the photographs in Kashmir only as any delay would have spoiled the image. This also led to emergence of photographic studios in Kashmir particularly on Lambert Lane.

Regarding other parts of Jammu and Kashmir, photographers seem to have given them a miss. There are just few photographs from Jammu and even less in Pir Panchal and Chenab valley areas. From Pakistan-administered Kashmir, there are some photographs of the landscape, bridges and the Sharda temple.

Though Kashmir being a major subject for photographers, but here in Kashmir itself Wasim has been unable to find photographs in large number. “From people here I could only get 300-400 pictures,” said Wasim. The oldest picture with Wasim is the picture of Bijbehara taken in 1857 by Italian photographer Felice Beato, the famed photographer who had also captured images of rebellion that year in British India.

The first true colour photograph of Kashmir, which is with Wasim is the one taken by National Geographic in 1948. “Prior to it there are some colour pictures, but in them the colour has been painted by hand. But Natgeo’s 1948 is regarded as the first true colour photograph among our collection, though I need more confirmation on it,” he said. The hobby is a costly affair and with no hopes of return in shorter term. Most of the money is spent on purchasing the photographs which come all the way from UK. Sometimes a picture can cost as low as couple of dollars and sometimes it runs in hundreds of dollars.

The highest price Wasim paid for any photograph is USD 1200  (Rs 85000), which was for a picture of a boat in Jhelum near the SPS museum. “It is taken by famous British photographer Samuel Bourne. It was during bidding process that I kept on matching other prices and the price went up to USD 1200,” said Wasim, slightly disappointed at his bargaining skills. “Now I have learnt a lot. I don’t pay more than USD 100. I have even managed to get entire albums for $60.”

His work doesn’t end after the receipt of a photograph, it is usually the start of laborious work. He has to digitise it without altering or compromising even an iota of its quality. And if any digital copy needs correction he has to do it without changing the original image. The intensive work needs equally efficient equipment.

The photographic work has turned Wasim into a computer geek too. “Working all by myself, I had to learn everything from editing to photo restoration,” said Wasim. 

To work flawlessly and get the maximum quality out of every picture, Wasim assembled a powerful i7 computer that is loaded with a whopping 24 GB of RAM and two NVIDIA Graphic cards.

 

The father-son duo has spent more than Rs 1 crore on the passion since it hit them during the 1990s. Though their other family members often advise them to desist from the "madness", they are unable to resist the temptation of acquiring a new photograph.

“My father often sends me old images of Kashmir circulating on social media and asking me to get this picture as it is not with us. I remember every photograph in my collection and the photograph often turns out to be from my own collection,” said Wasim.

As he speaks his heart out about the passion and inability of his family to share it, Wasim gets a call from his father who is in Jammu telling him that he is going to visit a Jammu artefact collector, suspected of having some rare photographs of Kashmir.