Some rare archival photographs look at the early Kashmiri Diaspora and the landmark achievements that went into the making of modern India, writes SHAILAJA TRIPATHI

If you plan to visit “Kashmiri Pandits – A Vintage Album, Contribution to the making of Modern India”, we advise you go with ample time in hand. The detailed captions and extensive text that accompanies the photographs and prints would need about an hour to be covered. Art historian, filmmaker and writer Manju Kak’s labour of love along with Siddharth Kak, a retired bureaucrat, the exhibition thematically highlights the contribution of Kashmiri Pandits towards nation-building.

“This is a small community. By 1920s about 5000 Kashmiri pandits were outside Kashmir and their contribution was enormous to the ethos of making of India. They did a lot for cementing the social and political fabric of the country. As a whole the community was very symbolic of India as it was very inclusive,”says Manju Kak, who with the aid of rare archival material traces the journey of the community from its origins to the freedom movement.

From the origins of the community, the collection moves in a thematic direction to examine migration of Kashmiri Pandits and how they came to be settled in Bazaar Sita Ram in Old Delhi, with segments on the significance of Temple of Martand and Shiva’s school of thought (Trikha Shashtra) thrown in the middle.

Escaping persecution, Kashmiris were migrating to different parts of the country and this section shows them settling in Northern India. Taking plum positions in the Mughal army and courts, getting jagirs, they started on their journey of becoming significant to governance. A document providing a peep into the history of gazetted officers from the community is in the same section as a portrait of Nainsukh, a famous miniature artist. Photograph of Shah Alam’s favourite court advisor Raja Mani Ram Zutshi who was given a jagir with an annual income of Rs.14,000, also features here.

In Kashmiri Diaspora, Mohan Lal Kashmiri of Bazaar Sita Ram also assumes an important role, on account of the adventures he undertook. Mohan Lal was one of the first to join Delhi College in 1829 and also became one of the first Kashmiri Pandits to have studied English. He was a guest of honour of Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace in England and impressed Sir Alexander Burnes so much that he ended up becoming part of the Alexander Burns Mission to Afghanistan at that time.

Through a few images and text panels, the exhibition also establishes the dressing style, cuisine and crafts of the community briefly but delves deeply into the other aspects of their life. For instance, it highlights the work of people like Brij Narain Chakbast, who really worked for Urdu especially during the freedom struggle. Then there were Shambhu Nath Pandit and Ram Narain Dar, the first Indian judge of the Calcutta High Court in 1861 and the first Indian judge of the Chief Court of Lahore, respectively.

Bishen Narain Dar, whose ancestors had migrated to Awadh, was another iconoclast from the fraternity who became the first Kashmiri Pandit to go to England. Bishen’s decision to undertake a sea voyage had him ex-communicated from the community as it was considered a sin in those days. Also the first Indian to become a barrister, his travel abroad became such a raging point that two opposing groups of Bishen Sabha (progressives) and Dharam Sabha (conservatives) were created within the community.

“He inspired a lot of Kashmiris to go abroad to work and study,” adds Siddharth Kaul, who is credited with the research that went into the exhibition. Images of Brigadier Kanhaiya Lal Atal, Major (Doctor) Pearey Lal, Lady Atal — first westernised lady in the community to adapt to western clothing and have a governess, Kailash Nath Katju, Justice Markandey Katju’s grandfather are the other interesting ones in the collection, not to forget some rare pictures of the Nehru family.

(The exhibition sponsored by ICCR is on at India International Centre Annexe gallery, Lodi Estate, till August 15)