Lahore clicked!

May 9, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar remembers the photography greats the city has seen

— Image: Supplied

The fourth photographic studio, which was located on the footpath in front of the Lahore Hotel under a tree, was shrouded by a big black curtain. It always appeared mysterious to me.

One day, gathering courage, I asked its owner as to how much he would charge to make my portrait. The rate he quoted was a hefty four annas. After much haggling we settled at three annas. The owner asked me to sit down in the chair whose shaky legs were formed of thick steel wires twisted to hold the weight of the model. But I told him that I would come back after I had saved that much money. Finally, when I had jubilantly smashed my terracotta galla, whereupon coins of various denominations were spilled; mostly, a thin circular shaped copper with a hole in the centre and a white square one with rounded corners called taka.

The amount thus raised through the savings was more than what I needed.

As I headed for the photographer’s place, I saw the octogenarian lady with a large serpent/python around her neck who used to come to our place asking for alms. I gave her one copper coin. As I returned with the requisite money, the hotel man had forgotten that we had settled for three annas only a few days back. Again, my bargaining skills came in handy. The man for the fear of losing a client agreed to the discounted price. So, I sat in the chair. There was no Lungo Tevere of Roma in the background and hence no swans swimming in it. The image maker delved into his ‘dark room,’ groping and manipulating the paper negative and correcting with a brush. He finally took out a black-and-white image which, to my disappointment, did not have the red lines forming the design on my jacket. As I argued and insisted on retaining the red lines on my jacket, he tried to make me understand that in a black-and-white photograph there could be no red colour.

Then, suddenly, a brilliant idea hit him and he drew red lines with a brush that he would use to correct the negatives. Once satisfied, I took out three annas from my pocket and slipped them his way.

The photograph stayed with me for a long time. It re-emerged out of the trash of family papers.

While de-cluttering, three rules apply: throw, donate and keep. The new find was precious to me. It had turned yellow because of the unwashed hypo. At the back of the print, a reference number was given in case I wanted more copies of it, along with a date in the year 1951. Gone were all the studios and the old man must have died many years ago. The ancient tree too had been felled. But the image graphically testified that I too was an adolescent once upon a time. It’s such a happy memory of one’s golden age.

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The owners of the building housing the studios tried hard to survive economically. Lahore’s first rooftop dining restaurant was set up over its spacious first floor. It was named Canada Dry. Summer evenings and winter afternoons were very pleasant there. It was a prototype for many to come, such as Banera in EME, managed by the Wattoo brothers who had emigrated from the UK. Now a huge, ugly concrete block with the fierce sun blazing through its glazed windows stands as an eye-sore.

Further down, there was a yellow building with a big white dome punctured with oval circular windows on all its four sides. The large public clocks that were intended to be fixed never arrived from England due to the WWII. So was the case with the Ishardas Building opposite the scammed Lakshmi.

The Lahore Hotel itself was a cultural place due to the generosity of its benevolent owners, the Khwajas. It was pulled down to accommodate shops on its ground floor. A spacious parking facility was created on top of the freshly built hotel that pretended to great ‘hospitality’.

The Nawab Muzaffar Khan Mansions and Lahore Hotel were both knocked down in 1984. The cleared sites spoke of the many ancient mosques and alleys of yore. Now all this is a cluttered mess creating traffic and parking problems.

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S Rollo, the Englishman whose mother was a Burmese, was an avid angler. Having no family of his own, he had created a Trust for the benefit of his staff. His studio had survived, albeit in less vigorous form.

The Bhatti Photographers, in a corner of the Dinga Singh Building, built in 1927, were tenants since pre-partition days. The new owners, having acquired this portion through a refugee claim, waged a long legal battle. The Bhattis finally lost it in the Supreme Court and closed for good.

The Allied Photographers’ Shaukat had to shift to a small shop in the main market of Gulberg. His son, Arif, tries to carry out his infatuation while his son is into floral bouquets and wreathes.

The Zaidis, who had a brilliant past, have survived because they have adapted to the changing times. Originally, the two Zaidi brothers were trained at the Mayo School of Arts. Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah is said to have walked into their studio, which was located right across the Lahore High Court. The leader’s hallmark portrait, in which he is wearing his famous Jinnah cap, was clicked by them.

Like S Rollo, the Zaidi brothers were members of the fishing club. I first met them at Balloki Headworks circa 1972, at a fishing contest that was held under the aegis of the Anglers’ Club of Lahore. Braganza was its head and judge.

Both the brothers died during a fishing trip, years later, drowning in a flooded place, one trying to save the other. Their car was also swept away. Shahid Zaidi, their nephew, immediately returned from the US, where he had settled in pursuit of greener pastures, and assumed his responsibilities. He inherited vast archives — a treasure trove, rather — of more than a century-old negatives and proof prints of the royalty and other important and influential families of the time whose portraits and marriage functions had been clicked by the Zaidis.

Presently, Shahid is organising these valuable historical images. Like his elders, he is an ardent angler and likes to explore the beauty of the Northern Areas where the evermore suspicious urials and other protected species evade his zoom and tele-lens.

The professional photographers were able to adapt according to the demands of the technology and time. Now more couples like to be photographed in the backdrop of historical monuments for which the departments concerned charge hefty amounts. More art photographers like Samiur Rahman, Javed Siddique and Sarfraz alias Mirjee are busy shooting wonderful shoots.

FE Chaudhary too has left countless clicks of the Old City, for the consumption of the posterity.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Shahid Zaidi)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Lahore clicked!