Circa 1980 | The staff and students of Lushkary Preparatory School photographed at Jamia Millia Islamia’s central mosque. These are probably class I or II students, along with their two teachers.
Inheriting A City:
My Grandfather's Archive
Sidra Fariah examines her family's past ad its relationship with the city of Delhi, through her grandfather's photo-albums.
WORDS by SIDRA FARIAH
PHOTOGRAPHS from SIDRA FARIAH's FAMILY ARCHIVE
March 14, 2021
In late March 2020, as a nation-wide lockdown began in India, Sidra Fariah found herself poring over family albums in search of material for a class assignment. As she looked through the photographs, she discovered that her family’s albums were unlike those of her classmates. In place of the birthdays and weddings that populated the albums of her peers, she found, in hers, a different story - that of a small school in Bara Hindu Rao, Old Delhi. The school, set up and run by her grandparents, had a brief existence over 26 years. In this time, it established a small but significant legacy - one that connected a family that came from little with a community of first-generation learners. Sidra’s family albums, the archives of Lushkary Preparatory School, speak of the modest ambitions of a young migrant in the city of Delhi. They map the journey of the school and its small moments of celebration and, through it, the city and the time in which it was located.
Circa 1980 | The staff and students of Lushkary Preparatory School photographed at the premises of the National Zoo. Like most school picnics, students are asked to stand in a straight file.
My Dada had a passion for learning. When he was 19 years old and still in high school, he married my Dadi. After their marriage in 1964, she dropped out of school and he went on to pursue his undergraduate studies in English Literature from Allahabad University. He was forced to leave his studies mid-way as his father stopped providing him financial support. A mechanic with the Indian Railways at the time, my great-grandfather wanted his son to join the Railways as a ticket checker. Dada was the first person from his family who decided that he would pursue his studies at a university level. Finding no support from his family, he left their home in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh for Delhi, while his young wife and child (my Abba) stayed in the care of their maternal home.
Circa 1980 | A spot is decided for having lunch at the National Zoo. Most of the students are busy eating their lunch, and some lost in conversation, when the photograph was taken.
Dada had very little money with him, which only managed to bring him to Delhi, where he knew almost no one. Despite this, he worked hard to find employment - first, as a salesman at a cloth shop, then as a wardboy, and finally as a manual labourer.
Eventually, he found a job teaching children English, Hindi, Mathematics and Science at a madrasa in Bara Hindu Rao, a neighbourhood in Old Delhi. The madrasa would in turn provide him with food, a place to stay, and a small stipend. Gradually, the people from the neighbourhood began to hear about his work as a teacher and from then on, Dada started tutoring students who were studying in private schools. Once he began earning a stable income, he brought his family—my Dadi and Abba, who was no older than 5 at the time—to Delhi as well.
Circa 1977 | Dada stands on the left, perhaps keeping an eye on the students as they play on the seesaws at the Children’s Park near India Gate.
Circa 1977 | Front (Left to Right) : Dada, Abba, Dadi and Bua, sitting on a bench in a park near India Gate. Behind them, stand the teachers of Lushkary Preparatory School. In the background, you can see the canal that runs beside India Gate, parallel to the Raj Path, which today has a boating facility for visitors.
In the coming years, he completed his graduation in English Literature from Shambhu Dayal College, of Meerut University. Commuting long distances each day, he continued to work for his livelihood. A few decades later Dada also studied for and finished a bachelor’s degree in law from Avadh University in Faizabad.
It was during this time that he enrolled Dadi, who had barely received an education, at a Balak Mata Centre run by Jamia Millia Islamia, where they offered non-formal bridge courses to those who had dropped out of the formal education system, allowing young mothers to bring their children with them to classes. Dadi soon became proficient in Hindi and Urdu, while my Dada taught her English at home. By this time, they had their second child - my Bua.
Circa 1977 | Dada drinking tea on a picnic to the Qutab Complex.
Over time, Dada and Dadi were able to rent a small room in a cul-de-sac of Bara Hindu Rao and work towards establishing Lushkary Preparatory School, a primary school named after Dada’s grandfather. It was just the two of them teaching at the school in the beginning, with students enrolling from neighbouring localities. Each class at Lushkary Preparatory had about fifteen to twenty students, all between the ages of five and fifteen. A majority of the students were first generation learners, some of whom started school very late.
Dada devised the school curriculum himself. For the older classes, he used conventional books from publishers such as Allied Publication and Maktaba Jamia, both of which continue to run till date. As for the primary classes, he would write and design the books himself and then print them on a cyclostyle machine. Just as he did with Dadi, he trained all the other teachers who joined the school, keeping in mind the specific learning requirements of first generation learners.
In those days, it was unusual for lower-middle-class families to go out just for leisure. But Dada believed in the importance of practical learning as a way for students to receive more exposure. So he organised ‘picnics’, once a year, in the winters, for all the students of the school. Starting early in the morning, a caravan of three or four buses would take students, teachers and other staffers to visit sites in Delhi like the National Museum of Natural history, Shankar’s International Doll Museum, Nehru Planetarium, Rail Museum, and the National Zoo. Dada had a great passion for the art of photography and so in each of these outings, a photographer from Filmistan Studio would travel with the large school group. By that time there were lightweight cameras and films that were highly sensitive to light, which allowed the photographers to be more mobile and flexible in their choices - from locations to light conditions.
Circa 1980 | Left: A tiger photographed inside its cage at the National Zoo. Right: Dada lying on the ground and holding a (toy) gun in his hand, at the Zoo. The two images were placed in the album in a manner that imitates a hunting sequence.
The photographs I found in this album were from two school picnics, the first held in 1976-77 and the second in 1979-80. Since there was no mention of the date or year of the picnics, Abba helped estimate when the photographs were taken. In the picnic of 1976-77 the school went to Rail Museum, Qutub Minar, Children’s Park, India Gate, Raj Ghat and Shankar’s International Doll Museum. Three years later, they visited the National Zoo, Purana Qila, Dr Zakir Hussain’s Mausoleum and the central mosque at Jamia Millia Islamia.
The pictures from my family’s archive speak of a collective experience of aesthetics, leisure and a celebration of achievement. Coming from where he did, my Dada established a school in an unknown city for children who, like him, were also first generation learners. When he came to Delhi he had no money and had to work hard just to survive. Establishing the school was a big achievement. But my Dada’s passion for learning meant that apart from getting an education for himself, he also wanted the community, the people living around him, to be educated. His students were the children of local bakers and karkhana owners. It was not common for parents from these households to take their children out for the kind of picnics that my Dada’s school would organise. That is why my Dada felt that these moments needed to be captured. While most of the photographs I found were carefully arranged within the album, I also found multiple loose copies that told me that these children would also have received a photograph from the picnic, to keep and share with their families. This was a rare opportunity for the children as well as their families. I wonder how many still have a copy with them...would it be as dear to them as it is to my family?
Circa 1980 | The staff and students of Lushkary Preparatory School photographed at Purana Quila. If one looks at the photograph carefully, there is no boundary wall that separates the Purana Quila from the National Zoo. The exact spot where the staff and students are seen standing, is where an artificial lake has now been constructed.
Being a student of history and photography, I understood that the photographs from these picnics are like cultural artefacts of not only the time but also the life worlds of the subjects in these images.
Dada, too, felt these trips to be important, enough to hire the services of a professional photographer for the entire day. In those times, the camera was still a luxury item. But my Dada loved the art of photography and wanted to record everything that was happening around him. More of an archivist than a practitioner, he involved himself in collecting, compiling, and curating photographs. He hired a photographer to document how he had built his life, his school, and to preserve that, as memory. I imagine Dada telling the photographer “Document every moment. How we are proceeding in the picnic, from the beginning to the end.”
In the first semester of my Mass Communication degree, we were taught how to take photographs and develop them in the dark room. My experience of the process made me appreciate the photographs from my Dada’s archive. I felt like I now knew how they were made and came into existence. Even though my Dada’s photographs were developed in a professional studio in Delhi, the effort and the art behind them; the photographic materiality - that which can be held and touched - fascinated me.
Circa 1977 | My abba (third from left) with his friends, near Smith’s Cupola, in the Qutab Complex. Three of the boys are dressed in the school’s uniform, while the other two are in casual clothing. Abba tells me that they are most probably elder siblings of some of the junior students. Many a time, a family member would travel along with a junior student, for the picnic.
Circa 1977 | The staff and students of Lushkary Preparatory School seen inside a train at the National Rail Museum.
Through my Dada’s photographs, I could also see what the city of Delhi was like and how, if at all, it has changed afterwards. Growing up, on outings, my parents would always take us to the spaces featured in the album. My Abba, who is a history graduate, would share his learnings about them with us. The familiarity with these spaces was what attracted me most to the album and photographs. I was amazed at how I knew these places, which were also a part of my own childhood. The entrance to the National Zoo in Dada’s album is the same as it is today. I could recognise it without my father telling me that this is the zoo, or that is the doll museum, or the rail museum. My family has passed down many such memories of Delhi to me. As a child growing up in Old Delhi, Abba became familiar with the area. Even now, he knows the geography of the place so well that he can tell you which path will take you to which market in Chandni Chowk.Today, when I take my friends to these places, I tell them what my father told me about a particular area or a shop. My family and I have inherited not only my Dada’s albums but also the idea of Delhi that lies within it.
My family’s albums are not about a single person or place, but many. It talks about my Dada and how he came to Delhi and established his school, while also speaking about the children who were the subjects of these photographs, and about the practice of photography itself. Since the album has been with my family for a long time, we have always looked at the photographs and talked about them. Dada’s love for photography has created for the family a secure image of our past in which we take pride. The photos helped me realise how our family worked and accumulated the cultural capital that they did, and then passed it on to others outside the family. At the relatively young age of 53, Dada was diagnosed with blockages in the heart. As his health worsened, the school started to lose students and eventually had to be closed. Because I have never seen Dada’s school, it is through these photographs that I experience it. At the same time, my family's albums don't just speak about my Dada’s life, our family and the school, but also about the history of the city - how Delhi was, how it has changed over time, and how, in many ways, it still remains the same.
Circa 1980 | The staff and students of Lushkary Preparatory School seen standing in front of the exit gates of the National Zoo. This photograph marks the end of the picnic; most of the students look tired, as some members of the staff smile towards the camera. The child standing in front, in a soldier attire, is my bua (aunt).