Passionate about the diverse facets of Kashmir’s past, engineer Showkat Rashid Wani and his son have created an impressive repository of thousands of photographs starting with the invention of the camera during the middle of the nineteenth century. A section of the enormous collection is at display at Karra Building near Lal Chowk, Tazeem Nazir reports
Nestled within a lively enclave of Srinagar’s Batamaloo district, Showkat finds himself in the company of his son, an engineer who runs a hotel. A retired development commissioner (power), Showkat and his son have a passion for collecting photographs. They have been doing it since April 1993.
Together, they have organised eleven exhibitions thus far, and the anticipation for yet another later this year only adds to the allure of their shared pursuit.
Their inaugural exhibition took place at SKICC in 2006, which the then President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam inaugurated. This exhibition was aptly titled Nostalgic Kashmir, a name that the collection decided to retain forever.
“We have been pursuing this passion together, my son and I. It is purely a hobby,” Showkat said with a smile. “Our collection spans an impressive 30 years and encompasses nearly 40 aspects of life in Kashmir.”
Their collection serves as a comprehensive anthology of life’s diverse facets, intentionally steering clear of any political content. “We have maintained its apolitical nature,” Showkat explained. “Each picture in our collection narrates a distinct story.”
Upon entering their spacious 2000 square ft hall, in the heart of Lal Chowk, not far away from the Ghanta Ghar, visitors are entranced by an array of photographs on various topics. One wall features vintage images of Vyeth, the Jhelum’s name of the yore, while others showcase haunting scenes from the floods in Kashmir and snapshots from the Maharaja’s hunting expeditions. “Every picture carries its significance,” Showkat emphasised.
“Regrettably, due to space limitations, certain topics could not be displayed, including pictures from the Dogra rule in Kashmir from 1847-1947 and images from Ladakh,” Showkat lamented.
“It’s a passion that continues to flourish day by day,” Showkat shared. “When you wholeheartedly engage in something you love, it becomes an integral part of your soul.”
With meticulous preservation of each photograph, Wanis have crafted a mesmerising window into the rich tapestry of Kashmiri life. Their collection stands as a testimony to their affection for their homeland and as a tribute to the intertwined stories of history and life.
Showkat’s passion for collecting photographs originated from an unexpected encounter in Shivpora, where he had to relocate due to circumstances at the time. The property he acquired there held a unique history, having belonged to the Wazir Wazarat from Rajouri. Among the items left behind were photographs of the Maharaja and a particularly special image of a baker, the Kashmiri Kaandur.
“While I returned all the pictures to their rightful owners, I could not bring myself to part with the Kaandur photograph,” Showkat reminisced with a sense of affection. “That picture struck a chord with me, and that is when our journey of collecting photographs commenced. It transformed into a quest to unearth our roots and delve into our heritage.”
During those days, access to information was not as straightforward as it is today with smartphones and the internet. “We had to visit phone booths to connect to Delhi, where we unearthed some resources,” Showkat elucidated.
His son, resolute in their quest to expand the collection, reached out to the British Library, which ,” extended access to us without any charge”.
Determined to plunge deeper into their passion, they decided to fully immerse themselves in this endeavour. “I told my son, ‘Let us embark on this journey,'” Showkat said fervently. And thus, their venture into collecting photographs unfolded gradually over the past three decades.
After each month, they assess their burgeoning collection. Quite recently, they tallied an impressive 16873 photographs. Among these, 6500 images have been organised into albums and stored across five volumes.
Showkat’s ardour for preserving history through photographs took a heartrending turn during the floods of 2014. With their cherished collection of framed pictures, painstakingly stored in trunks within their garage, Showkat and his son faced a profound setback when their home was engulfed by 20 feet of water in Shivpora.
“My wife, our servant, and our dog were stranded in the attic for 19 days,” Showkat recounted. “Though my son was absent during that period, his return to witness the devastation of all those pictures left him inconsolable. It was more than just a financial setback; it was the loss of our hard-earned efforts and a repository of memories.”
Despite the devastating setback, Showkat and his son remained resolute in their determination to rebuild their collection, which was fortunately backed up on computers stored in a secure location within the attic. It took them two years of dedicated effort to painstakingly reconstruct their archives.
Their collection holds profound significance, both personally and for the community at large. Annually, they craft a calendar featuring these historical photographs, although the calendars for 2015, 2016, and 2017 were unable to be produced due to the aftermath of the floods.
Showkat’s mission centres on showcasing the very essence of Kashmiri heritage and culture through the medium of pictures.
Through extensive research and visits to libraries, Showkat and his son curated a diverse array of photographs. Some were gifted to them, while others were acquired through payments or special efforts. They hold a special reverence for photographs intertwined with stories, as these offer profound insights into their family’s history and the broader region.
A particular photograph of Amira Kadal, an ancient drawbridge reminiscent of London Bridge, captivated Showkat until he procured a book by Dr Duke that provided the comprehensive details he sought.
“My collection has expanded so significantly that I anticipate my grandchildren inheriting it someday. However, they do not seem particularly interested, as it has become rather unwieldy, and they harbour their passions,” he shared with a smile.
Within his family circle, Showkat and his son remain the sole enthusiasts of this endeavour. But on certain occasions, visitors have recognised their ancestors in the photographs and humbly requested copies, which Showkat fulfils.
“These photographs are tethered to an emotional thread that binds us to our history,” he elaborated. “When individuals come across their family members captured within these images, it evokes a deeply meaningful and poignant connection.”
The collection encompasses a vast array of subjects, encapsulating the multifaceted layers of Kashmiri life throughout the years. Showkat has borne witness to the shifting tides of tradition, observing how certain customs that were once integral to Kashmiri culture have gradually faded.
“As an example, the tradition of nabud-nout, where brides used to present crystallised sugar pots to their in-laws on their wedding day, is no longer commonplace,” Showkat recollected. “Through this compilation, we catch a glimpse into the lives of our forebears, our bygone way of life, and the evolution of our cultural tapestry.”
Kashmir has transformed, and a multitude of facets from its heritage has been consigned to oblivion.
“This entire collection holds profound sentimental value for me,” Showkat emphasised. “It is far beyond merely a repository of photographs; it is a testament to our origins, our customs, and the very essence of our Kashmiri identity.”
“Safeguarding these memories is a means of paying homage”, he believes, “to our history and bequeathing our legacy to forthcoming generations.”