Shaheen Ahmed’s photographs aim to build an archive of a city on the brink of change
How does one capture the changing legacy of a city as ancient as time and which is now understood as space which has been a colonial construct? Born and brought up in Guwahati, I have a bond as deep as an umbilical cord with the city. Living outside the city and the state for almost fourteen years now, I have been through my academic and creative pursuits in the recent past, trying to explore non-mainstream narratives of Assam. This is a project that I embarked on since 2016 where I am trying to map the cityscape through my camera. This is not just to mark the physical transformations in the cityscape, but also an exercise of and in memory. I have started with photographing those spaces and localities where I spent my childhood and most of the images are from in and around Panbazar, Lakhtokia, Dighali Pukhuri and Fancy Bazar, places that existed around the Ahom times in the mediaeval period and which were also developed by the colonialists. I started an Instagram handle titled ‘Guwahati Diaries’ in 2017 to publish not just images of the city but also narrate the micro-histories of built-heritage and non-tangible heritage that are fast disappearing from the cityscape.
My work proposes to build an archive of the everyday which are so ubiquitous and that we encounter regularly but we are yet to come to terms with the pace at which these are dying. For instance, the Assam type houses that dotted the landscape or professions that are slowly disappearing from the streets, such as the door-to-door perfume seller. The images here are all from the Instagram handle @GuwahatiDiaries.
Mohsin House at the Paanitanki crossroads in Panbazar. The house was constructed in 1951 and this design is something which I have seen in many buildings constructed in this period including the paper mill in GS Road. Some such structures are still around in Fancy Bazar, Paltan Bazar, Bhangagarh etc. Is this a form of Art Deco? Mohsin House also houses many iconic establishments of Guwahati. These buildings also stand symbolic of the hopes and capital of Nehruvian Socialism of a post Independent India.
A rare sight in Guwahati. An Assam type house structure still survives, fighting the odds in Fancy Bazar, nestled amongst high rise buildings. Growing up in Guwahati, these Assam type houses were visible everywhere, today they are a rarity. These structures are the most feasible in a seismic zone like Assam, but unfortunately, capitalism and population, has made them redundant.
That familiar cart from childhood. Despite all the changes in the cityscape, sometimes seeing the familiar makes the heart do a little dance. This little green cart from Shaikh Brothers, the oldest bakery in Guwahati would always make its way through the streets in the morning. That lovely aroma of freshly baked bread emanating from the cart, is one of the earliest smells associated with my childhood. Seeing this on the street today transported me back to a time when little joys would mean breakfast on Sundays with a loaf from Shaikh Brothers along with the cream rolls and glass cakes. Shaikh Brothers will always be special for a Guwahatiian. Shaikh Brothers, estd in 1885.
The oldest mosque of Guwahati, Lakhtokia No.1 Masjid, in the foreground. The mosque finds a mention in an article in 1885 in the journal Assam Bandhu, which was edited by the Assamese intellectual Gunabhiram Barua. The land for the mosque was donated by Col. Jalnur Ali Ahmed, father of the fifth President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Col. Ahmed was a distinguished Assamese of his time – he was the first Assamese to receive an MD degree from London and the second Assamese to be associated with the Imperial Medical Services.
So, what is Guwahati, especially Panbazar, and memory without any mention of Mahamaya? Situated at the crossroads leading to Panitanki is perhaps Guwahati’s oldest eatery. Mahamaya was established in 1918 by Naroram Barman who came to the then fledgling colonial town of Guwahati. His 74 year old son, Arjun Barman, who runs the eatery now, recounts the early days of this eatery when tea was sold in murhas and carts. The eatery was established not for the colonialists who already had their high tea spaces in the clubs, but for the masses. The prices even today reflect that ideology. Tea which was then 1 anna, today is for 7 rupees. What was interesting to find out was that Naoram Barman’s brothers started the other Panbazar landmarks, Ashoka Hotel (estd in 1960) and Hotel Suradevi (estd in 1966). Arjun Barman says that the 1960s were the time of a booming hotel business in Guwahati and I have a feeling that Suradevi was perhaps one of the earliest large hotel in the city. What is even more interesting to know is that before Ashoka and Suradevi, the brothers had cloth shops rather than hotels, operating out of the very spaces where these hotels now stand. The Barmans originally are from Samota, Nalbari and after hearing this narrative, it does appear that they were one of the first Assamese entrepreneurs in the hospitality and restaurant industry, esp in Guwahati. Coming back to Mahamaya, the current location is in Mohsin House and it’s been housed there since 1948, after the building was constructed from the earlier Assam type construction. For me, a memory of Guwahati is incomplete without this landmark. A space which has seen everyone and anyone associated with the city spend hours over tea and intellectual discussions. I can only imagine my own grandfather and father going there and having tea and engaged in adda with their friends . Guwahati will cease to be the cityscape that I know of if this landmark vanishes and I sincerely wish that the space stays the way it is since 1948 – stuck in time, memory and a sepia tinted nostalgia.
A local ‘xamogri’ store in Guwahati. Some parts of the past still remains in this rapidly evolving megapolis where small stores such as this are still visible on pavements and street corners. The working class and middle class both do buy some of their everyday consumption goods from here. Stores such as these sell everything from mirrors, to torch lights to kitchen utensils to shoe polishes to hammers etc. Xamogri means goods for everyday use in Assamese. Coming across these stores at least makes me feel that my childhood is not completely lost.
Another part of the city slowly dying away. The Ashoka Bar and Restaurant has been in Panbazar for as long as I can remember. It was always the go to place for students from nearby, especially, Cotton College for cheap alcohol and great food. Today, it’s a skeleton of itself. The waiters still wear the old moth eaten uniforms, although 15 years back it was blue and later it became maroon. The tables are now bereft of even the white tablecloths. The whole space cries out ’emptiness’. Only a couple of the old staff still serves here. The space outside the restaurant has changed completely. But for me, no trip to home is complete without making a mandatory visit to this place.
A dy(e)ing breed. Again, this is opposite the railway quarters in Panbazar at Don Bosco Chariali. Perhaps one of the first dry-cleaners in Guwahati. There used to be a plethora of them at one point, but now I see just Triplex and this one, still surviving. This was established in 1966. Again, the struggle is perhaps to see how long will such establishments survive before being taken over by laundromats or other chains.
This story first appeared on Raiot.in