Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkazi Foundation of Arts, believes that his job is more than merely selecting photographs.
Regular visitors to the calm oasis that is the National Gallery of Modern Art will miss Homai Vyarawalla's photographs. For the past couple of months, the black and white photographs beckoned curious viewers with their grand themes and one almost wished that the photographs would never leave but their time was up and they had to go back to the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in Delhi. The young and studious looking curator of the Foundation, Rahaab Allana, was in Bangalore to deliver the closing lecture and to carefully pack the landmark pictures before taking them home.
Allana has been the curator of the Alkazi Foundation of Arts for the past few years and is a well-known researcher of Indian photography. “I think the job of a curator, or at least my job, has been to create institutional links to a great extent (like between the Alkazi Foundation and NGMA), to see how people connect to the photographs. My job is not to merely make a selection of photographs or to create links betweenphotographs,” explains Allana, on being asked what it means to be a curator.
He talks slowly and firmly, weighing his words, looking into the distance as he concentrates. “The point (of curation) is not to only take material out of boxes but to explore its connections with the allied arts and this is something that only a deep engagement with the archive can give so that you can make conceptual connections,” says the custodian of the 95,000 plus images of the Alkazi collection.
It is still rare to find a professional curator in India but things have been changing with people like Allana who approach their task in a serious way. Organisations like the India Foundation for the Arts have been having a series of workshops over the past few years introducing various artists and academics to professional curatorship. The curator has a challenging role, especially, if one is associated with a collection as vast and diverse as the Alkazi Collection which has been put together by the doyen of Indian theatre, Ebrahim Alkazi, over several decades.
Alkazi built up his private collection through auctions and donations and his collection continues to expand as artists see the efforts that the Foundation is making to make works popular and accessible. While it mainly consists of photographs which date back to the mid-19th century, the collection also has a large body of contemporary art which is a legacy of Alkazi's close friendships with artists like M.F. Hussain. The archive of photographs has provided impetus to a new generation of researchers to study the history of photography in India.
As a researcher and a photographer, Allana is in a supremely enviable position as he has access to this rare archive but it is burdened with the responsibility of making this work public as well. Being Alkazi's grandson has obviously helped Allana to be part of the team at the Foundation, but he has also proved his commitment to serious research on photography. His background as an art historian and his interest in documentary art has also helped. He has edited several special issues on photography and is currently responsible for ‘Pix', a quarterly of Indian photography.
Allana studied at St. Stephen's College and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. After his return from London a few years ago, his grandfather opened up a cupboard with 5,000 photographs and Allana started documenting these. After six months at this, Alkazi opened up a second cupboard with another 5,000 photographs. “I had this day job at NGMA and was documenting these photographs on the weekends when I realised that these photo documents were actually the substance of fresh research and it became one of the most exciting things happening in my life,” exclaims Allana. Now, this great archive has taken over much of his life and Allana spends his days among a world class repository of Indian photography when he is not taking his own photographs.
Keywords: Alkazi Foundation of Arts