Ebrahim Alkazi, 85, cuts a dapper figure in a mauve shirt, immaculately ironed pants, glasses perched on the tip of his nose and a small notebook in hand. A doyen of Indian theatre, Alkazi was one of the founders of the National School of Drama and is renowned for his collection of 85,000-plus vintage photographs that make up the Alkazi Collection of Photography (see box). He spoke to Lounge about Vijayanagara: Splendour in Ruins, a book featuring 19th century photographs of the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire. It is the second in a series that will be released from his collection on 9 July. The pioneering photographers of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a “mad passion”, says Alkazi, a characteristic that could well apply to the man himself. Edited excerpts:
Trace for us the origins of your love for history.
My father was an Arab. He was an orphan and was sent here from Saudi Arabia to study trade since it was a time when there were very close links between India and the Middle East. My father always told us to take an interest in, and be curious about, the development of ideas. So I received my first education at a little library he built for us at home. It included a 20-volume set of the Book of Knowledge, which was a Bible for me and many members of my family.
Alkazi with the photography collection preserved in Delhi (Photo by: Madhu Kapparath/Mint)
Where do you buy your photographs?
There are libraries, museums and markets all over the world where you can get them. When I was young and studying in England, I used to frequent the Saturday markets at Portobello Road in London. People sold postcards and photographs out of small stalls and I would pick up stuff for a few shillings. The shopkeepers were extremely knowledgeable; after a while they caught on to my interests and started providing me with more material.
Later, I went to auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams. It was all far too expensive and I was too awkward to bid for anything, but I got an idea of how to look for these photographs.
What drew you to these photographs?
History is important. The development of ideas and the development of international relationships over the years are so important. India was under colonial rule for 150 years. What happened during that period? For example, there were Thomas and William Daniell who travelled all over the country, drawing and painting Mughal architecture. These photographs document history in a certain context. I believe history is a living thing that never dies and unless you make yourself a part of it, you can never really comprehend what it is all about.
Could you tell us something about Vijayanagar?
Vijayanagar was a very important kingdom in the Deccan with a tremendous architectural history. Alexander Greenlaw was perhaps the first to photograph its ruins in 1855. Others followed. These photographs provide a point of view which is not just historical, but which is also about the development of photography over the years.
Would you say that the British contributed to the preservation of our history?
We don’t have a sense of time or history or of the preservation of the past. All our history was initiated by Western scholars. We owe it to the British for the preservation and conservation of the past. Even today, we have these beautiful photographs taken by Lala Deen Dayal rotting in archives across the country and we have no access to it.
Is it easier for a non-Indian to access material in Indian museums and archives?
There is so much that an Indian cannot access but which is available to a Westerner. William Dalrymple has access to material that an Indian scholar doesn’t have. People here do not understand the significance of the scholarship of the past and its relevance to the present.
Why is it important to archive these photographs?
The idea is to have a reference for the restoration and preservation of monuments and historical places. Also, before they fall to ruin completely, to have a documentation of these places. My aim is to be able to provide our historical sites with a new lease of life. These photographers documented the times with such curiosity, finesse, dignity and scientific strength. It is a shame that foreigners had to do it for us.
Also read: Understanding Alkazi