It is never late to begin a hobby, and be passionate about it. Showkat Rashid Wani, 59, developed his passion for historical Kashmir pictures at 46. Thirteen years down the line, he has a collection of 2100 rare photographs and 400 paintings – altogether a rich visual detail of Kashmir’s past.
Wani, who retired as state’s Power Development Commissioner last year, was moving to a new house in 1996 where he was caught by a picture.
“When I shifted to Shivpora residence in 1996, a photograph of the coronation procession of Maharaja at Mubarak Mandi (Jammu) hanging in the annexe caught my attention. It is this picture that led me to the hobby. I cherish it so much now,” says Wani.
Wani’s treasure of visual history of Kashmir, packed in 53 steel boxes, covers a wide range of subjects. He has dextrously sorted them according to their subjects, enabling a viewer to comprehend the picture in its totality.
“Today when I see these photographs, I straightaway peep into our past and visualise the hardships and haplessness of Kashmiris then. Photographs are an honest source of information as compared to written words that have the bias of writer in them,” says Wani.
Wani completed his engineering degree from Regional Engineering College, Srinagar in 1971 and joined the government service as an Assistant Engineer in 1972.
Collecting pictures, Wani says, began as fun after his rendezvous with the Maharaja’s photograph. But an exhibition of these pictures inaugurated by then president of India A P J Abdul Kalam in July 2006 made Wani take the pastime seriously.
“I took it seriously and my collection swelled with every passing day. Now I have more than 2100 rare photographs,” he says proudly.
An 1857 photograph of Bijbehara bridge by an Italian is the oldest picture is his treasure. However, the oldest still are paintings. One of the paintings by William Carpenter depicting two young nautch girls (Hafiz Nagma) was copied by Wani from a book published in 1854.
Photo collection, in his words, is like an endless ocean.
“I try to procure any photographs pertaining to Kashmir at any cost. For this, I approach museums, auction websites and people with personal collections to purchase photographs. Even some people sell rare photographs gathering dust in their homes,” says Wani.
Wani is not alone in his endeavour. His son Waseem shares his passion. “Waseem and I are bonded with photo collection. He is always searching for photos, and once he finds something, we arrange for its procurement,” Wani says.
Like his father, Waseem is an engineering graduate. Unlike his father, however, he has not taken up a government job. Instead, he looks after his hotel – Madhuban – in Dalgate. Hunting pictures can be called his second job.
The father-son duo’s collection has almost all shades of life and beauty of yesterday’s Kashmir – political, economic, social and scenic. There are pictures from Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s Royal Barge in 1863 to Maharaja Hari Singh’s third marriage. “I have complete visual coverage of Hari Singh’s third marriage with a 13-year-old princess from Dharampur Gujrat,” says Wani.
There are other pictures that depict Hari Singh’s lavish affluence and cruelty on children as well as aged persons.
Photographs of construction of Ganderbal power project are a recent entry into the collection. “I purchased these pictures from James Burke, a relative of the photographer John Burke who shot these in November 1951,” informs Wani. Apart from the construction of the power station, the pictures shed light on the culture, dress, and tools of that time.
The floods that swept the valley in 1902 have been shot by some anonymous photographer. “These photographs have other utility besides their historical importance. During the Jhelum beautification process, the authorities came to me and saw the photographs of Jhelum taken some hundred years ago. It helped them a lot to insert an element of antiquity into beautification project,” Wani says.
As Wani shares glimpses of his treasure with us, he receives an envelope of photographs sent by someone from the USA. “Here are the new entrants in our treasure of visual history,” he tells while sorting the photographs. Some of them are undated photos of Kashmir architecture.
Wani is not a miser in sharing his treasure. “I am not doing it for business. I want to share them with people. This will help them know our immediate past through visuals, not words,” Wani says.