Once upon a time...preserved

Perched atop a rock, dupatta pinned perfectly in place, the young woman has an unmistakable glint in her eyes. A toddler beside her, on the other hand, seems burdened by more serious concerns though a rolled-up rug in the rustic environs suggests that the family was enjoying a picnic. The simplicity of the apparel, the scene itself and the ageing paper, all hint at an era frozen in time.

Zishaan Akbar Latif and Salima Tyabji have set up a photo archive on the Web titled Preservations Project. Pic Courtesy/Zishaan Akbar Latif

The photographer’s infinite patience and planning a century ago yielded this — a rare glimpse into the incredible life of Atiya Fyzee, whom noted journalist Saeed Naqvi has described in one article as, “a woman of considerable charm.” Not only was Atiya among the first Muslim women to step out of the purdah to study in England, but she also penned a travelogue, which initially appeared as a series in a Lahore women’s journal. It was later published (in 1921) under the title Zamana-i-tahsil (Time for Education) and has now been translated into English by the Oxford University Press. 

Nasima Tyabji with her father Badruddin Tyabji  

Scrawled on the border of Atiya’s image are tiny Urdu notations we wish we could decipher, so as to know a little more about this woman, married to Samuel Fyzee Rahamin and muse to two eminent intellectuals of the era (poet-philosopher Sir Allama Mohammad Iqbal and Maulana Shibli Nomani). It surprises us to learn that Salima Tyabji too was similarly inspired when she inherited her grandfather’s photos.

Nasima on her wedding day; (below) her husband Alma Latifi, member of Punjab’s Legislative Council (1921 and 1924) and secretary of the Consulting Committee at the third Round Table Conference in London in 1932. Pics Courtesy/ Naseem Halim

“I couldn’t throw them away, as they were too beautiful,” says Salima, who worked as an editor at the Oxford University Press. She admits she had to brush up her Urdu skills in the late ’90s to read the inscriptions, which she says, contain mostly names, greetings and dates. Her labour yielded the museum at Teen Murti Bhavan in Delhi a priceless collection of 150 photographs, which, Salima thought, would be extremely valuable to researchers and which also lent material for her book, The Changing World of a Bombay Muslim Community 1870-1945, soon to be available on Kindle.

Flashbulb moment
Inspired by that project and painfully conscious of the fact that so many branches of her family had their own collections buried away in boxes that the present generation couldn’t be bothered to rummage through, Salima approached Zishaan Akbar Latif, her 28 year-old photographer nephew to help her procure and publish those too. That was two and a half years ago, and though the website born of their combined labours looks promising, the enormous Preservations Project has only just begun.For these aren’t pictures you just want to flip through and forget about. They’re not akin to Facebook albums you glance through to see who pulled a funny face — though it must be said, in one 1903 picture shot in Bijapur labelled “Beauty and the Beast”, a cousin of Dilshad Begum, wife of the Nawab of Murshidabad, manages a pretty funny one. These images really belong in a museum.

Enter this museum with a click
That’s truly what Salima and Zishaan have set up online — a photographic museum replete with rare images of interesting characters, so many of whom boldly and variously defied convention. Eminent lawyer and third President of the Indian National Congress Badruddin Tyabji, Salima’s great grandfather, features in formal family portraits here, sporting a fine English suit in one image clicked almost half a century before our country gained independence. In another picture, Indian freedom fighter Abbas Tyabji, who served as the Chief Justice of Baroda High Court (until he retired in 1913), sports a serene smile under his beautifully embroidered taqiyah (cushion), the struggles of his life forgotten, if just for a flash.

Colour them red, for burning passion
A lot of text is yet to be inserted into this cyber family tree that spans from New York (USA) to Kobe (Japan). While finding associations and recognising faces in images that date back a hundred years pose one problem, here, in so many cases, there’s also history that simply must be put on record. Seen soaking her feet in a gentle Mahableshwar stream in a picture (circa 1900), Sakina Lukmani, for instance, could be truthfully described simply as a daughter of Badruddin Tyabji. But while it’s relevant that she was someone’s daughter and someone’s sister, that inscription would hardly be deemed complete without the citation of sources that indicate that at the age of 65, Sakina was sentenced to four months of rigorous labour because she insisted on picketing liquor shops. Her efforts, in which she was joined by Parsi and Hindu women, were recognised as part of our fight for freedom and this united approach of all Indian communities forced British authorities to relent and commute Sakina’s sentence to simple imprisonment within 24 hours.

The secret behind her smile
Similarly, Sharifa Hamid Ali, who looks like a cuddly grandma just waiting to fawn over her family in a 1950 photograph taken in Mussoorie, was no doubt, as the notation reads, “Sharifa binte Abbas Shamsuddin” (daughter of Abbas Shamsuddin). But she was also a linguist conversant in six languages, including Persian, English and French. Even after her marriage to Hamid Ali, an ICS officer, she remained committed to her social work towards the Harijans (as per Gouri Srivastava’s The Legend Makers), promoting the education of rural women and setting up nursery schools in villages. Women still fighting for the cause today would appreciate that this sweet old lady had been pushing to raise the marriage age for girls (not just Muslim girls) and that she even drafted a nikah namah, “which was too progressive, so never used,” offers Salima. According to Srivastava’s 2003 publication, Begum Sharifa even attended the Round Table Conferences in London, which changed the fate of this land. How can we forget all that these luminaries did for our country? Fortunately, this gargantuan effort that makes sure it’s all out there in black and white should ensure we don’t.

Zishaan’s tips on what to look for in old family pictures
> The quality of the paper and print stands out as technology has transformed photography completely
> Some of the old studio sleeves were works of art in themselves. If you have photos preserved in these, look for the detailing on the logo, the patterns on the sleeve, the material used – it’s really remarkable when you consider the expense and effort that must have gone into making these
> The photos might help you connect with your family from that bygone era. For me, the project opened my eyes to the fact that there must have been photography-enthusiasts in our family back then too

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