In conversation with Ahmed Hussain, Northeast India’s ace photographer

There have been quite a few photographers in North East India who have done excellent work. But Ahmed Hussain of Shillong stands out as a class apart and everyday he is visited in his Shillong house by countless people, some needing an old photograph that has to go in the book they are writing, or the silver jubilee souvenir the school is going to print, or someone wanting to give an obituary insert in the newspaper in memory of his or her late grandfather. In other words, Ahmed Hussain is like a part of history of the North East. Nurul Islam Laskar sat with Ahmed Hussain at his heritage cottage in Shillong, sandwiched between Police Bazar and the Ward Lake, and Laskar tried to unearth some memories of his childhood days in Shillong and what induced him to develop an interest in photography

Nurul Laskar: Tell us something about your early life.
Ahmed Hussain: Let me get back to the days of the British. My great great grandfather Gulam Hyder, great grandfather Kasimuddin Mulla, and grandfather Mowla Buksh had together built up a business that comprised among many things, a private bank and the first motor service between Gauhati (presently Guwahati) and Shillong. My father Aulad Hussain was born in 1909 and he was the only son of his father. My father took great interest in sports and cultural activities and no events in Shillong would be complete without his involvement. I was born, in Wahingdoh area of Shillong, in 1934. My early education was in a school attached to the local church where the medium was Khasi language.
NL: Say more about your childhood days.
AH: When I was three year old, we shifted from Wahingdoh and came to our new house in Police Bazar, behind the Bijou Cinema Hall. In 1938, my father took me to Calcutta along with my grandfather, grandmother, and my mother. He left us there while he himself kept shuttling between Calcutta and Shillong. In 1939, I was admitted to Pushpa Balika Vidyalay which was located very close to our house in Beadon Street. Here I learnt my alphabet afresh. Somewhere between 1942 and 1943, I was shifted to Entally Academy near Mowlali where I was admitted to class IV this time. I remained in that school until 1946. In between we kept visiting Shillong on short trips.
NL: Did you spend your entire childhood in Calcutta?
AH: Not at all. In 1946 we came to Shillong for a short visit but around that time ugly communal riots broke out in Calcutta, a precursor to the imminent partition of the country. My father decided to keep us back in Shillong as the social climate in Calcutta had worsened. Back in Shillong, I whiled away some time doing almost nothing.
NL: Didn’t you continue your studies in Shillong again?
AH: In 1947, I was admitted to class VIII in Jail Road Bengali Boys High School. It was a very aristocratic school in those days that had produced dozens of doctors and engineers already. I can remember Angshu Nath Mukherjee, son of Baidya Nath Mukherjee who was a Cabinet Minister in Assam in those days. Angshu was a senior school mate of ours. In 1950, I passed my matric examination. Same year, I was admitted to St Edmund’s College when Br I O’Leary was the Principal. But a bout of typhoid incapacitated me and I had to stay away from college for two years.
NL: What happened next?
AH: When I was able to move around, I joined St Anthony’s College and from there I passed my I Sc exam in1954. Fr DJ Wollaston was the Principal at that time. One interesting thing happened. When I was in final year in college, I was married off to my cousin, Kulsum Hussain, who was at that time a student of class X at Jail Road Girls High School. My grandfather was not keeping good health and it was to fulfil her desire that we were married off at that tender age. Anyway, ours was the first marriage in Shillong that was celebrated in a hotel and not at the residence of the bride or groom. It was solemnised at Peak Hotel where the Meghalaya High Court stands now. Another interesting fact relating to our wedding is that my wife’s school declared it a holiday for its students and teachers! I also remember that Sir Md Saadulla, who was the Prime Minister of Assam at that time, was one of the witnesses to sign our marriage documents!
A photo from the family album, shot sometime in the early fifties. Ahmed Hussain is standing in the front row, third from left, wearing a fez cap and glasses. His wife Kulsum is sixth from left in the same row, wearing specs and ponytails. Hussain’s father, Aulad Hussain, is standing in the last row, extreme right and mother Anwara Begum is seated in front row at extreme right, wearing a dark coloured sari.
NL: It’s time you tell something about your first major encounter with the camera.
AH: Mr SS Mustafi was a well known flower connoisseur and gardener of Shillong. Those who are familiar with Shillong of yester years would still remember his cottage situated between Chapala Book Stall and the Shillong Municipal Board Office, quite close to Police Bazar. It was known for the shelves full of tubs containing myriad hues of flowers, orchids, cacti and ornamental plants. One fine morning in 1953 I saw Mr Mustafi passing by our compound early in the morning carrying a bunch of red roses in his hand. Since we were familiar with each other, I asked him where he was heading to. He said prime minister Nehru was staying at Raj Bhawan and knowing his penchant for roses he wanted to gift him a few from his own garden.
Following morning, when I came out to Police Bazar, I saw policemen on duty everywhere. On enquiry I learnt that Nehru was coming down to see the rose plants at the Mustafi Cottage. I ran home to get the Agfa folding camera I had and in a jiffy I was at Mustafi Cottage. I got opportunity to click a few pictures of Mustafi Uncle with Nehru and later presented those to him. While he appreciated my effort, I slowly came to be recognised as a “photographer” in our known circles.
NL: When did you decide to become a full time photographer?
AH: Photography had already become a passion for me. In 1958 I left for Calcutta to find out what more could be done in the field of photography. My father had in the meantime bought me a German ‘Ensign’ folding camera that gave me a boost in my pursuits of photography. I came back to Shillong in 1961. I started looking for a job here and there. But fortunate did not favour me. Many known people told me, “You belong to an aristocratic family. If we give you a small job here, your parents will get offended. You better concentrate in your family business.”
But at one point, fortunate smiled at me. The Census Department was looking for a photographer for a one year contract work in North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now known as Arunachal Pradesh. The year was 1962 and soon after the Chinese aggression I had to take up the assignments in Bomdila and Rupa Villages in the Kameng tract of the Agency. The work had to be done under the supervision of Dr BK Roy Barman, Registrar General of Census Operations, Govt of India and I had to do immediate reporting to Ms Indu Borthakur, the then Director, Statistics, NEFA.
My monthly emoluments were Rs 350 and that was quite a bit of money at that time. I only had to use my camera, and all raw materials for my work were being provided by the department. Interestingly, my allowances per month came to about Rs 700, almost double my salary. I got a dearness allowance if I was out of station (Shillong), and that allowance became double on those days I was on the move (mostly walking)! I enjoyed my work and the bosses were happy with me. God was kind too; my one year contract got extended to three years.
The only sad part of the story is that all my photographs became the property of the Ministry of External Affairs Department, Govt of India and I had to give an undertaking not to share any of those with any outsider. I had to surrender all negatives of all the photographs I took during that assignment.
NL: What did you do after completion of your contract with the Census Department?
AH: That’s a long story again. Let’s keep it for another day. Let me just tell you this much, there was no looking back. In the years that followed, I was called by government departments from almost all the states of the North East to do photo coverage of their various projects and publications.
Nurul Islam Laskar is the former Consulting Editor of The Sentinel & former Executive Editor of Eastern Chronicle.