A review of The Alkazi Collection of Photography, New Delhi, India.
The Alkazi Collection of Photography (ACP) is a private archive of nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographs from South and Southeast Asia. It focuses on India, but also includes Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Tibet, and various countries within Southeast Asia. At approximately 100,000 images, it is the largest collection of photography in India and likely the largest private collection of South Asian photography in the world. It concentrates on nineteenth-century photographic material, but in recent years has been adding twentieth-century modern and contemporary photographs. The collection was started by Ebrahim Alkazi (b. 1925), an actor, director, and visionary who served as the Director of the National School of Drama in New Delhi and had a transformative impact on modern Indian theater. Alongside this illustrious career, he assembled a formidable collection of Indian modern art by some of India’s leading artists. From the mid-1980s onwards, Alkazi also collected early Indian photographs. It was a time when the art market had little interest in such objects, but he was propelled by a desire to preserve these documents of Indian history in a post-colonial era (Sunil Mehra, “I Was Recognised For My Genius,” Outlook India Magazine. December 18, 1996). This first collection forms the core of what is now the Alkazi Collection of Photography.
I have been using this archive for over ten years, spending one to two weeks in the various locations where the archive has been housed over time. My research focused on Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal (1844-1905), for which the ACP is one of the four most important collections in the world. It contains many excellent examples of Dayal’s early work in Central India, when he worked as a Surveyor in the Public Works Department of the colonial administration, as well as later work when he served as the official photographer to the Nizam of Hyderabad, including almost every one of Dayal’s albums documenting the visits of viceroys and foreign royalty to the Princely State of Hyderabad. These albums were produced in multiples but the archive preserves unique albums as well, such as the one once belonging to Barrister Eardley Norton, among the first British men to join the National Indian Congress. This research has been since published in my co-authored book, which is part of a series of publications that have been brought out by the ACP based on their collections (Deepali Dewan and Deborah Hutton, Raja Deen Dayal: Artist-Photographer in Nineteenth-century India. New Delhi and Ahmedabad: The Alkazi Collection of photography and Mapin, 2013).
The ACP collection used to be divided between private residences in London and New Delhi, and a commercial gallery space in New York City. In recent years, it was brought together under one roof in a new building located in a posh neighborhood in south New Delhi, M-141 Greater Kailash Part II. The building is under the umbrella of The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, a registered charitable trust, which has an active program of exhibitions and publications, conceptualized and overseen by its Curator, Rahaab Allana. The building consists of three levels, one of which is dedicated to offices and researchers. On this level there is a large open room where items from the collection and recent publications are on display. The white marble of the building creates a quiet, serene, and cool environment.
The archive is prepared to receive researchers during working hours on weekdays. However, researchers must make an appointment ahead of time by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The email should detail the research project, what sort of material is being looked for, and the approximate length of time desired in the archive. No other special documents are required. The staff are excellent and very helpful, but due to their busy schedules, it may take some time to receive a reply. Thus it is essential to initiate contact two to three months prior to a desired visit.
The collections are not online, but they are digitized and available for browsing on-site. The number of researchers that can be accommodated at any one time is dependent upon the available number of computers. Records include an image and textual information, ranging from basic identification to more extensive write-ups. After going through the digitized collection, researchers can request to view original photographs. There is no limit, but the quantity requested will determine the viewing schedule. In most cases, photographs can be brought out on the same day or on the following day as the material is stored in the building itself. Photographic reproduction is not allowed but low-res digital images can be requested for research purposes; reproduction for the purposes of publication must be requested separately. There is also a small reference library available with publications on Indian photography. A complimentary cup of sweet, milky tea (chai) usually appears for staff and researchers every few hours. This turns into a nice break to socialize and converse with staff and other researchers. For other forms of nourishment including lunch, researchers should plan to bring food with them or seek it out in the local market place near the archive.
The nineteenth-century component of the ACP contains albums, albumen and gelatin silver prints, and glass-plate negatives. This subject matter spans archeology, architectural history, landscape, urban development, military history, ethnographic and studio photographs, and Princely States. It contains works by early European photographers working in India, such as John Murray, Felice Beato, John Edward Sache, James Waterhouse, and Samuel Bourne. There is also substantial material by both well-known and lesser-known Indian photographers that extends into the twentieth century, including Narayan Daji, Darogha Ubbas Ali, Raja Deen Dayal, S. Hormusji, D. Nuserwanji, and Shapoor N. Bhewar. Some of these are quite rare, such as a number of albums containing photographs by James Waterhouse documenting his travels across Central India in the 1860s, before he became the head of the Photography Department at the Survey of India. There is also material relating to the events in 1857, variously known as the “Rebellion,” “Uprising,” or “Mutiny,” that marked the beginning of British colonialism in India, such as the album of Dr John Nicholas Tressider, which Christopher Pinney has called a document of “the utmost historical importance” (Christopher Pinney, The Coming of Photography in India, London: The British Library, 2008, p. 111). He has also identified in the ACP what are most likely the original displays of photographs by Narayan Daji from an 1855 meeting of the Bombay Photographic Society (ibid., p. 12).
One of the most valuable aspects of the ACP is its vast quantity of studio portraiture from the first half of the twentieth century, including an important range of painted photographs. These document the economic and social landscape of a society in rapid transformation, capturing a sense of the self as it was being articulated through the prism of modernity, reflected in real terms through backdrops, props, dress, and pose. The archive has continued to grow over the years through the international auction market and local connections. Recently it became the custodian of the very important personal archive of India’s first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012).
The importance of The ACP cannot be stressed enough. It serves as an alternative to better known archives of early Indian photography in the United Kingdom, such as the British Library or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which were assembled as official repositories of the British colonial government in India. Instead, the ACP consists largely of material that still circulated in India well beyond its moment of production that may have been part of dispersed collections belonging to the royal family or families from other social classes.
While much has been published, there are gems still to be discovered. For example, historian Partha Chatterjee found the very photographs used as evidence in a trial during the 1920s, which was the focus of his A Princely Imposter? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar or Bhawal (Princeton University Press, 2002). In this way, the ACP provides an important and perhaps unique view into South and Southeast Asian history, on the one hand, and the production, collection, and circulation of photographs, on the other.
Department of World Cultures / Department of Art
Royal Ontario Museum / University of Toronto
Image: Sir Asman Jah and Fancy Dress Ball Guests, Bashir Bagh Palace, February 1890, Albumen print, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. The Alkazi Collection of Photography, 97.20.0001-00036. Royal Ontario Museum.
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