A Gorkey Patwal Photoseries Captures Indian Historian Irfan Habib In His Aligarh Home

Irfan Habib
Irfan HabibGorkey Patwal

Professor Irfan Habib's contribution to Indian history, politics and social theory cannot be overstated. With an intellectual and academic career spanning over five decades, he has wrought a legacy that continues to prove invaluable as a bulwark against the rising tide of hate that's slowly making its way across this country.

It is this legacy that photographer Gorkey Patwal has attempted to immortalize in a photoseries that captured the legendary scholar in the natural comfort of his home and study in Aligarh.

You're preserving the legacy of a historian, Irfan Habib, in your frames. How did you chance upon meeting him?
I wanted to meet Irfan sir because he is the last generation that interacted with the likes of Gandhi and other important figures during the freedom movement and conception of independent India. In a few years all we'll have left is stories and pictures of this time. I wanted to try and add a drop to the ocean that's already raging with the accomplishments of such scholars.” 

Your father is part of the Indian armed forces. How has that shaped your idea of freedom and democracy? Could you contextualise ithis to your experience with Irfan Habib?

We all have different views on what freedom and democracy means to us and at this time these are what keeps us apart and together as well. Meeting Irfan Habib made me think of how less I know of our history and the legacy we have and how much more can one do to retain and maintain it.

After meeting and hearing stories from him, you feel how little importance we give to our legacy and the waste the history we have and how barely anyone knows about him and his contribution to our country and society.

This series is a departure from your usual trajectory of work. How was it different to have a historian with a powerful legacy in your frame?

It’s always interesting to frame and capture different and interesting people. I always liked peeping into people's lives through the camera and when the opportunity was there to spend some time with him and shoot him at his house, I took it, as photos can tell you a lot about someone and I enjoy doing that. Stories and people's lives always interest me and a subject is a subject. I treat them the same. They all feel a little awkward about why I am taking photos of them. Professor Habib even asked me, "Why are you interested in taking a photo of an old man?"

Your pictures are a poignant reminder that photographs have the unique ability to freeze a moment in time or transcend time itself. Could you speak to how you feel about the power of photography in preserving the legacies (and history) of historians like Irfan Habib as well as others who have shaped India’s history.

Before making this trip and meeting him I had no idea about him and his work. The lack of this fact made me more interested. There are so many interesting people in our country who have done so much work in their field and we have no idea about a lot of it. If my photos can just give some people information about them and make them aware of such personalities I think that makes me happy as a photographer.

How would you describe him and your experience with him?

I was told to read a lot about him so I could ask him questions that would be about his work and experience in life but I wanted to capture the human 91-year-old Irfan Habib and not the famous historian and that’s the way I approached him. I asked him questions about what he does on a daily basis and whether he likes to travel or socialize. In the time I spent with him, he told us stories about Gandhi and Nehru and how he likes to read in his study room and chat and gossip with his friends there too. I pictured him to be a serious person but he was funny, soft-spoken and very welcoming.

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