Tahir Yazdani founded The Lahore Heritage Club (LHC) a self-financed, non-government organization. LHC was both a museum and a Club. Tahir was the force behind it; the entire ground floor of his home is dedicated to preserving artifacts and antiques of a fast-vanishing cultural era. He was a remarkable man who did not accept monetary donations though people were free to donate old artifacts.
I first met Tahir in 2009 when trying to arrange an event for Asian Study Group members at his museum. He was a man of great charm with a heavy black mustache and a soft voice. It was the first of my many visits. He became my first port of call when I researched my pieces on Indo-Pak cultural heritage. Tahir was always accommodating, friendly, and gave generously of his time.
He was on a quest to preserve our lost, vanishing, heritage for future generations. His knowledge of the city made him an institution. He was a natural story teller and time flew by in his company. Tahir was a walking, talking, encyclopedia on the Indus Valley heritage.
He was 59 years old. He died too young, too soon. His loss is irreplaceable.
Q. Tell me about your journey in founding the Lahore Heritage Club.
I am fascinated by architecture and that led to my curiosity about bricks, which I started to collect. There were rich and diverse brick-making techniques in the Indus Valley Basin civilizations: Moenjodaro, Harrapa, Uch, Multan. Uch and Multani brick craft came from Central Asia, Iran and Turkey: a region that has a lot of firozas and lapis lazuli – the two gemstones that were used as enamels. Terracotta bricks were also enameled and baked, which is how tile-making started. For over 600 years these tiles resisted moisture and decay, thanks to the process of enameled metallic coating. These bricks were used on the façade of homes in the walled city. The top balcony was always partially tiled using small bricks that fit together in patterns of birds and flowers. You could not see through the designed openings and yet it allowed air flow. It also added privacy. When you were right at the top of the building, in winter to sun bathe, and in the summer to sleep on rooftops, you didn’t want your next door neighbor peeping in. Walled city culture was that you put your charpai (bed) at the level of your banera (balcony) and your neighbourly ethics demanded you would not look over the banera into others’ courtyard.
Q. So you started with bricks. And then?
Little by little the whole buildings became my fascination. Items from buildings were thrown away when houses got demolished. I collected wooden structures, jharokas with ornate latticework and shateeris (central rafter in roof). The central rafter always sported an elegant hand-painted motif. The design was unique for each family.
In the 1980 and 90s, walled city dwellers moved to Gulberg, Defence, or Model Town to better their daughters’ marriage prospects. Their daughters, though graduating from Kinnaird, Home Economics, or NCA, were passed over when prospectors learnt that the family lived in Gawalmandi, Bhaati or Lohari. A home in Gulberg, Defence or Model Town was a status symbol. That was when rampant deterioration started. Buyers demolished residences to build plazas and rapid commercialization took place.
Q. All your collection is from the walled city?
My poster collection comes from Bombay Music House in Old Anarkali. When the owner died his son sold the place. One day I walked into the shop and found gutter water was flowing inside and dripping on the posters on the walls from the upper storey.
I made a deal with the son and gave him token money for all his 18 posters which showcased pre-partition music icons: Kausar Parveen, Nazakat Ali, Salamat Ali, Noor Jehan, Geeta Roy, Malika Pukhraj, Madhu Bala, Geeta Bali, His Masters Voice, etc.
Before I could pick up my posters, Naeem Bokhari, Tahira Syed’s husband, offered to buy Malika Pukhraj’s poster for five times my bidding price. When I arrived the owner’s son sadly professed, “I promised you all the posters, but Naeem Bokhari insisted that he had to get the Malika Pukhraj poster for his wife and I ended up selling it to him.” So, I got 17 posters!
After posters, I turned to collecting films, records, music, old movies and projectors (35mm, 15mm, 8mm). My entire collection came from people who actually worked in those arts and in a way belonged to those arts.
My book collection came from my family. I have Persian calligraphy, Qurans, books on Indian History, architecture, art and crafts, free masonry, and lots of old newspapers. When I founded LHC people would ask about newsworthy incidents and dates, etc. To respond to them I started collecting newspapers such as the Civil & Military Gazette, Nawai-Pakistan and other dailies.
Q. Tell me of other acquisitions, any interesting story...
In Anarkali, a dharmshala got occupied by a couple of families. One day when I went there one of the resident families were celebrating their daughter’s wedding. They had taken off the main door of the temple, made a fire from it and were cooking a Korma Deg on it. It was a huge, solid, 14 ft wooden door; big like the Bhaati Lahori doors and was embellished with elaborately carved floral bouquets.
I was horrified and asked the family not to burn down the whole thing, but they were obviously more concerned about their daughter’s wedding than my seemingly highbrow concerns. I told them I would go to pathan taal (place selling wood) and get wood for them to burn, pleading with them to slow down the process till I came back with some wood. I ran to the taal and rushed back, but they demanded more money, which I ended up paying. But the taal wood wouldn’t catch fire, and I stood there lamenting the loss of my money and heritage. Finally, the wood caught fire and they let me remove the door. One palla (panel) was burnt, I picked up the other palla and preserved it.
Q. Do people approach you to sell your antiques?
They do. But when scavengers bring items from public places, such as mandirs (hindu temples) or graveyards, I refuse to buy them, though there are other collectors who do buy from them.
Q. Why do you refuse?
I believe such buying is not heritage preservation, rather it is heritage trading. Buying from religious sites and public places leads to vandalism. There is a line between vandalism and preservation. If you put a gravestone (even if it is 200 years old) in a food court or I put it in my gallery, it will lead to finishing of a public place, finishing off a graveyard. If you buy stolen goods, then people will bring you things from all over the country; this is from Moejodaro, this is from Uch – take this, take that. For example, if the dharmsala door had been in place, I would not have taken it. It was burning, that is why I took it. I saved it. If I had taken the door off its hinges and brought it home that would have been vandalism.
In the Lahore fort, a piece fell out from a priceless pictured wall. I could have picked it up and brought it home, instead I made a film on that piece. I took six students from the NCA multimedia department and right there before the students I put back the fallen piece from the Lahore fort wall. I inculcated in the students that if I take the piece, I will preserve it, but its rightful place is back on the wall from where it fell and that is how you contribute to the city and to world heritage sites.
Q. What is your favorite part of your collection?
Everything is a favourite, I get emotionally attached but some I cherish even more than others. I prize my gold and mother-of-pearl calligraphy and handwritten books that are four to five hundred years old. These books were handwritten, in Persian and Arabic, by people living in Lahore. They are sort of self-help diaries about how to live a life. Maybe a father wrote it for his children or brother for brother. Very unique!