In 1998, when Rahaab Allana, then a student at St Stephen’s College, was in the Ajanta and Ellora caves, he saw a civilisation far removed from his cocoon, which revolved around “responding to novels and writing critiques”. As Allana moved from one side of the cave wall to another, he realised something else: one could read images, and they could tell a story on their own. Allana’s engagement with images and Indian culture had begun, and it was to be a lasting association, one that would see him as curator of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, an archive of 19th– and early 20th-century photographic prints from India and Southeast Asia, consisting of more than 95,000 photographs.
Allana was no stranger to the archive, because its founder, noted Indian theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi, was his maternal grandfather. “My grandfather was a very formal man. I had to make an appointment to meet him,” smiles Allana. “So, he called me for tea one day, and I took up the invitation.” That was 2001. Allana now had a master’s degree in art history from School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and had been working as an assistant at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), in Delhi. “When I met him [Alkazi] for tea, we went to his study, and he opened a box that had thousands of photos,” he says. “It immediately brought into my conscience an entire history that I was unaware of — no one here had seen anything of 19th-century India.” Alkazi asked Allana if he was interested in making a “contact sheet” — creating an inventory of and digitising the archive’s material.
Allana took up the offer. He spent his weekdays at the NGMA and documented material for the Alkazi Foundation during the weekend. “It then became twice a week, which soon turned three times a week and so on,” he says. Over the next five years, Allana collected material from the archive’s New York and London offices, “around 80 per cent of the images”, and set up an office in New Delhi. In 2006, he took over as curator from his grandfather.
Any curator, much like a writer or a film-maker, finds it hard to separate the personal from the professional. Alkazi began acquiring images for his archive in the early 1980s, buying from auctions and private dealers, and created the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in 1995. Allana, belonging to a different generation and sensibility, assumed the archive’s curatorial responsibility a decade later. It isn’t farfetched to imagine a gradual shift in the archive’s gaze. “I have been making a subversive collection to his,” says Allana. “He [Alkazi] disliked how Indian culture was considered kitsch abroad, and he felt that contemporary cinema was responsible for that image, which is why he didn’t acquire any material from cinema. That’s something I have started doing of late.” Allana’s interest in movies resulted in Filmi Jagat, a found scrapbook that casts light on the fractured history of Indian cinema between the 1930s and 40s — a part of history that is nearly nonexistent (less than 5 per cent of that period survives today in the form of original film reels or their dupe negatives).
That is why Alkazi’s efforts to document India’s history via images are nothing short of remarkable. More so because his archive isn’t a result of happy coincidences; it happened because of meticulous planning. “He had a proper vision. He did everything with dedication and with a view of the future. It was clear to him that his archive had to be made available in India. He wanted this from the start.” Alkazi was also clear about keeping his collection to himself. “If he could have helped the national institutes of this country to make archives, he would have been very happy to help them. But, he realised that one of the repercussions of the era of Gandhi and Nehru was that though the welfare state was brought on to the level of culture, it also brought bureaucracy in culture. So, he thought of moving away from the NGMA and making something of his own, in which he could not only control but also delegate.”
The archive paints an evocative picture of India’s history, encapsulating the curious intersection of two markedly different cultures (Indian and British) and offering a host of images: the outsider’s gaze (pictures of India by British photographers such as John Murray and Samuel Bourne); the natives documenting the local (Indian photographer Abdul Husain Motiwala capturing people, a departure from British photographers’ work at the time that primarily concentrated on landscapes); and, the slowly shifting narrative of a nation (evident in pictures by Indian photographers Narayan Vinayak Virkar and Homai Vyarawalla, who documented the nationalist movement). These fragments of Indian history are now Allana’s responsibility, coupled with the gentle weight of carrying forward his grandfather’s legacy. But, Allana is, perhaps, also aware that the archive can have its own story now. “I am not my grandfather,” he says at one point in the conversation. “I can never be.”