BY: HAROON KHALID
We enter a hall, replete with a rich collection of posters, gramophone records and other archival material. The owner of the house, Tahir Yazdani asks us to wait and disappears into an adjacent room. Returning with a small bottle of etar, a traditional Arabic perfume, he dabs a little on our wrists. “This is a traditional way of welcoming guests,” he adds. “This organic perfume has the same smell but would react differently to different skins and give a different smell altogether,” he continued.
Situated in the heart of Gulberg, long considered the elite locality of Lahore, Yazdani’s house is an interesting combination of the old and the new. The exterior walls are colourful, in tune with traditional methods, and stand in contrast to the more modern but sombre surroundings. Inside, a wooden balcony collected from the historical city Bhera in Punjab has been used to make the portal which leads into the living part of the house, which is a modern construction. Next to the lawn is the workshop, where carpenters and artisans work on other old wooden doors, abandoned by their original owners. These workshops renovate them, ready for use again. “Bhera [an ancient city about 200 km from Lahore] was known for its wood work,” says Yadzani. Even if one takes a walk around the city today, one would notice several old wooden balconies and doors, intricately carved and designed slowly passing over to oblivion. “If you go to the Lahore Museum, the first item that appears is a door from Bhera,” says Yazdani.
The ground floor of Yazdani’s house is entirely taken over by his collection. “Well, I am archiving actively since the past 18 years, but professionally I would say about seven years ago. I began with terracotta figures,” he says. A glass showcase contains his collection of terracotta figurines and objects, some of them from the Indus valley civilization dating back to the 4th Century BCE. Next to them is another collection more recent items of glass, porcelain pottery, pipes, matchboxes, etc from the 19th and early 20th century. On the wall facing the showcase there is a collection of pre-partition photographs of Zoroastrian and European families from Lahore. Underneath them hang traditional clothes from far-flung areas of the country. “Another aim is to preserve the living culture of indigenous people. These are the communities from Cholistan, Kalash, Kashmir and Balochistan. We commission them to make traditional dresses, baskets and carpets, which we then sell in the markets of Lahore. The profit is used for the uplift of the communities,” says Yadzani. As he says this I notice a handmade Persian carpet placed on the floor, underneath our chairs.
“Some years ago a few of us enrolled in the PhD program of Conservation at the National College of Arts (NCA),” he says. “However they didn’t tell us at that point that they didn’t even have enough faculty within the college to teach. And now we are stuck; having completed a few courses but not being able to complete the degree as the Higher Education Commission (HEC) would not allow NCA to give us the degrees. The battle is going on,” he says. While still studying for the program Yazdani’s thesis was focused on Sustainable Heritage through tourism. Even though he was never able to work on it academically, he was able to collaborate with a local businessman to put into action what he was planning to do for his doctoral thesis. Together they set up Andaaz Restaurant, situated in the heart of Taxali gate, part of the ancient walled city of Lahore. At night the restaurant has a splendid view of the bulb-like white domes of the Badshahi Mosque, constructed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Behind it is the historical market of courtesans and dancers, the Heera Mandi.
The restaurant is decorated with several items from Yazdani’s archive. The ground floor houses a collection of old Pakistani film posters, furniture, a gramophone, a type writer and antique furniture. Along the staircase that leads to the rooftop restaurant, there are several jars placed behind showcases, old rupees from the earlier years of the country, a calligraphy collection, miniatures and paintings. Yazdani also established ‘The Lahore Heritage Club’ to work towards the conservation, preservation, and management of the rich cultural heritage of Lahore and Pakistan.
Yazdani buries himself in a huge trunk, carefully picking out books and slowly placing them on the ground. Most of them are in a bad condition; rusty brown, a few pages or covers missing. “This is my collection of historical books. Some of these books are 400 years old. These are books in Sanskrit, Persian, handwritten manuscripts in Arabic and Punjabi as well. I have a lot of literature on Guru Granth Sahib, the holy Sikh book,” he adds. “Some foreign conservatives go into a shock when they look at the way I preserve these books. You shouldn’t touch them with bare hands they warn me. I laugh. I tell them that we were preserving books even when there were no modern techniques. I combine the traditional and modern methods of preservation. I use neem leaf, which when dried is an insecticide. I occasionally take the books out into the sun, which is important,” he explains.
“One day is not enough to show all of my collections,” he says. He once again disappears into the room from where he had brought the etar and emerges with a box. “This is my collection of coins,” he says. Neatly compartmentalised, this is a collection of coins from antiquity up to the present day. “You can find coins from the time of Shahjahan in here and also from the early days of Pakistan,” he explains.
Tahir Yazdani’s ‘The Lahore Heritage Club’ also has a presence on Facebook, using the immense potential of social networking. “It is futile for archivists to work in isolation,” he says. “Look at this gramophone,” he points to a gramophone placed behind his chair. “It is useless without the needle on its tip. Without that it would not be able to play any of the records and all my records would go to waste. Now the problem is that there are no companies who make the needle anymore, which is why I am working on making a network of archivists and interested people. I contacted a person in England, who used to work for a company responsible for the production of these needles. I assured him that I would buy all his needles after which he agreed to make them for me. In this way we were able to put to use our gramophones and records. Similarly I have a network of archivists and collectors in Pakistan and also Southasia and the world over. We talk over the phone regularly and discuss our collections and ways to increase coordination,” he explains.
Across this room is his small theatre, where he hosts his private screenings of old movies, also part of his collection. “Once in a while I call all my friends and we watch a movie,” he jokes. There is an old projector, placed in the centre of the room, whereas a roll is technically placed around it, by the operator. The movie being played is Baiju Bawra, a blockbuster from the year 1952. “We find a lot of these movies from scavengers, sold to them by different film studios and embassies,” he says.
Yazdani understands the importance of digitizing his archive, which is why since the past few years, he and his team are working on digitizing his material. “We have covered a lot of manuscripts but there is still so much to do.”
As I prepare to leave another guest comes to see Yazdani, asking him if the door he was promised by the evening is ready. It turns out that after renovating the doors Yazdani sells those to rich clients which help him fund his projects. This client is buying a door for his new restaurant.