Gone but not Forgotten
Syed Altaf Ali Chowdhury leans jauntily against his car, a Singer-9 sports convertible, with a look of self-satisfaction. It is after all, a fine model, and obviously something of a rarity a round these parts. Our character, a well-fed man of means, nattily dressed in a suit and open-necked shirt, is clearly enjoying his new acquisition, quite sure of his place at the pinnacle of fashion and style. He is something of a man about town here in Calcutta in 1934, although he originally comes from Bogra (a town not necessarily associated today with such heights of sophistication).
This fleeting moment caught for posterity is just one of an extraordinary collection of images amassed by Waqar A. Khan, a local writer on art and cultural heritage, who has been working now for over a decade to build up Bangladesh's biggest collection of vintage photographs. Other examples in his extensive collection include individual and family portraits, sports club pictures, as well as images of festivals, hunting trips and the visits of celebrated dignitaries. Many of them capture formal occasions, in which the powerful pose solemnly for the camera, whether in their drawing rooms or at the end of a hunt, a tiger laid out at their feet. There are several images including British Raj figures too, looking rather stiff and uncomfortable in their formal attire, including a few in fur coats and hats up in Darjeeling. But there are also moments of disarming spontaneity. Here for example are a group of young upper-class men dressed for all the world like Cambridge undergraduates, in stiff collars and ties, their hair slicked back, smiling and sipping tea on a lawn in Old Dhaka c 1935. Another picture, of Islampur residents waiting to welcome Sir Fuller in 1905, has a young boy leaning eagerly out of the crowd, smiling at the camera, striking a strangely contemporary note.
Life, Waqar explains, was never same after the invention of the camera. The excitement generated by this new mode of capturing people and places, chronicling events and festivities, previously dominated by artists and portraitists, led the emerging middle classes to seek to preserve images of themselves: a process he terms “self-memorialisation”. This impulse has a long pedigree: it's a tradition that goes back to our earliest forefathers who sought to record the meaning of their lives by painting on the walls of their caves. Now of course everyone has a camera, and often a video camera to record key moments and events. But even if the novelty has worn off, the urge remains.
To look at these pictures is to re-enter a lost world. Here are two young barristers from Natore and Faridpur posing splendidly in top hats in a London studio: their stories must be fascinating. How on earth did they make that journey back in 1904? It would be difficult enough today… And how did they perceive their new environment?
The whole collection is similarly evocative: the mere sound of a photographic studio such as Bourne and Shepherd, with its branches in Calcutta and in Talbot House, Simla, is enough to send the imagination whirring. Their adverts and visiting cards alone, with their floral copperplate handwriting, are fascinating as early examples of the art of visual public relations.
Calcutta itself was indeed at the hub of this new trend in the region, with a number of both foreign and Bengali-owned studios emerging in the late nineteenth century. However, it appears that there were no professional studios here in Dhaka back in the 1890s. The earliest pioneers would have been foreign, such as the German Fritz Kapp, who came to Dhaka to photograph the family of the then Nawab, and the Calcutta-based Johnston and Hoffman, who recorded the visit to Dhaka of Lord Dufferin in 1898. However, by the early twentieth century there was certainly quite a brisk business in photography here, although ownership of these studios often changed hands, making the maintenance of standards more difficult, with expertise being lost in each handover. Despite this, Waqar professes surprise at the high technical quality of the early work he came across. The development of the profession was set back however by two major events: Partition in 1947, when many non-Muslim owners and clients left, and the upheavals of 1971, in which many old studios were looted or burned down.
In 2003, Waqar published the best of his collection as the 120-page limited-edition Rare Photographs of Eastern Bengal (1880-1940), with the help of Standard Chartered Bank. He explains that the initial idea came to him over 25 years ago while visiting the India Festival at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The vision lay dormant in his mind for over a decade, but then slowly grew
into reality. Inspired by the carefully restored portraits of Indian princes and nawabs he'd seen at the exhibition, he embarked on a mission to locate, retrieve, identify and painstakingly document similar pictures from what was once Eastern Bengal. Helped by what he describes as a classical temperament, and an affinity with history (he spent many hours in his youth roaming around graveyards and other ruined ancient buildings), he set out on a one-man journey which opened up a fascinating world.
His searches led him to uncover twenty-nine “dead” studios in Old Dhaka, full of equally moribund photographs, many in an advanced state of decay. Others were hidden in attics, in private albums, or simply stuffed away in boxes. Given the humidity, the dust and heat, it is a miracle that they survived, let alone could be restored. Beginning with manual techniques, but then supported by the arrival of digital software such as Photoshop, Waqar became an expert on bringing these “dead” pictures back to life. The examples he shows of images before and after his restoration are indeed impressive. Stills which were faded, sun-damaged, pale and lifeless revived to full sepia-toned glory. Over the years, he developed a sixth sense for the texture of photographs, the colour tones, the paper they were printed on, as well as acquiring the research methodology necessary to an endeavour at the heart of which is authentication and validation of each photograph's originality.
But this was not merely a hobby and passion. Waqar subsequently founded the Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies in order to promote academic research and documentation of the country's cultural past, believing strongly in the power of visual imagery as a key element in the academic discipline of cultural studies. The collection also clearly has commercial value as an archive and resource for anyone wishing to illustrate their own work with such pictures.
Is there a slight but nagging danger in such commemoration of the rich and powerful? Particularly when they are so deeply tied up in the era of colonialism? Where are the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, apart from on the periphery of the crowds? Waqar himself is aware of the arguments that rage around the issue, but maintains that the pictures' value was always primarily aesthetic rather than political: marking a simple sense of enthusiasm at the advent of this new technology. These photographers, he maintains, did not set out to be controversial, but to create photographic art.
A more charming danger perhaps is that of succumbing to nostalgia. The world portrayed in these carefully composed photographs suggests elegance, taste, refinement and success, (there are no images, for example, in which tigers stand atop vanquished hunters). Could a vanished world such as this offer a means of escapism? Waqar insists his attention is fully on the present, and that he is well aware of the problems of glorifying and romanticising a past which was never quite as golden as these pictures suggest. His interest, he claims, is in art rather than escape.
It's a plausible viewpoint, but there is also something about Waqar, whose accent has impeccable British overtones, and whose appearance is immaculate, which almost suggests he could have stepped out of these very pages. Indeed, we chance on a youth in one of the pictures whose face bears a striking resemblance to the man sitting in front of me. Hang on, let's not get too fanciful here. But it's strange all the same when I leave, expecting to be followed down the stairs by this rather sophisticated old-world interlocutor, that no-one materialises: the staircase remains empty. Could it be that he has slipped in once more among the pages of his own book?
(R) thedailystar.net 2007