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The F.E. Choudhry Gallery: Introducing Chacha

Posted on April 14, 2008
Filed Under >Adil Najam, >Nadeem Omar, History, People, Photo of the Day
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Nadeem Omar and Adil Najam

F.E. Choudhry, chacha, photo journalist, PakistanThe recent award of the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography to a photojournalist of Pakistani origins provides us a moment of reflection on the legacy of great Pakistani photojournalists. One name that embodies this rich legacy more than any other is F.E. Choudhry.

With this post we launch a series in which we will feature rareand archival news photographs from F.E. Chaudhry, going back to the very creation of Pakistan. These include rare news photographs as well as historical human interest photographs. Our purpose is to create an electronic gallery of F.E. Choudhry’s work which not only celebrates the contributions of this creative artist but also provides a visual record of the Pakistan that was.

Over the next many weeks, in this ATP exclusive, we will feature the news photography art of F.E. Chaudhry. But, first, we wanted to start with some introductory words about F.E. Choudhry, the man.

F.E. Choudhry was born on March 15th, 1909 to a Christian Rajput family in Sahrnpur, India. According to Khalid Butt, writing in The Nation, he was named Faustin Elmer by his parents. His family moved to Jhelum, when Fazal Elahi was a young boy and he had his early education at Mission High School Dalwal, Jhelum and later graduated at F.C. College, Lahore.

Photography was his first love, which he picked up as a hobby first in those days when photography was a still cumbersome affair and in his later years, started working as a free lance photographer while serving as a science teacher at St Anthony High School Lahore in 1934.

His first news photography was published in the Civil and Military Gazette, Lahore in 1935 and then went to freelance for Illustrated Weekly of India, Bombay and other papers. Joined The Pakistan Times, as a staff reporter in 1949 and remained associated with it until his retirement in 1973. He has worked with all the leading editors such as Faiz A Faiz, Mazhar Ali Khan, I A Suleri and K. M. Asaf.

F.E. Choudhry, affectionately known as Chacha in journalist community, is credited to have introduced innovative features to photojournalism, such as cricket action photography, pictorial and artistic studies of birds and animals in photojournalism, photographs of natural and cultural scenes,along with host of others which have become standards items of photojournalism today. For his long standing services, F E Choudhry was awarded Tamgh-i-Khidmat in 1970, Pride of Performance in 1987 and Tehrik-i-Pakistan Gold Medal in 1992.

Carrying on his long innings, FE Choudhry lives in Lahore at the age 99.

In 2002, Khalid Hasan had marked his 93rd birthday with this memoir, written in Khalid Shaib’s wonderfully intimate style in Dawn:

F.E. CHAUDHRY, Chacha Chaudhry to every journalist, is just seven runs short of his first hundred. The cool, unperturbed manner in which he is playing through what for others would be the nervous nineties, leaves little doubt that he will reach the magic mark with the same ease and lack of fuss with which he used to take his pictures for the Pakistan Times.

In a country where everything seems to change for the worst, Chacha remains one of the few remaining signs that perhaps not everything has gone down the tubes. Chacha, who has been decorated more than once by different governments for his outstanding contribution to photo journalism, does not need a title, but were one to be found for him, surely it could only be Baba-i-Press Photography.

He was Pakistan’s first serious, full-time press photographer who worked freelance until he was snapped up by Mian Iftikharuddin soon after the Pakistan Times began publishing in 1947. He stayed with the newspaper almost until its closure, through good times and bad, working in his own inimitable style and snapping pictures, many of which have come to form the pictorial history of Pakistan. Had Chacha done nothing but recorded the upheavals of Partition and the arrival of thousands of refugees from across the newly-drawn dividing line between India and Pakistan, he would have assured for himself a place in the history of pictorial journalism.

Chacha, proud father of the 1965 war hero Cecil Chaudhry, who is currently the principal of Lahore’s St. Anthony School, lives by himself, as he has always done, at 7/10 Jail Road, Lahore. For years, his children, especially Cecil, have tried to persuade him to move in with one of them; and every time Chacha has said no. He says he is perfectly capable of looking after himself and though he may no longer hop on his Quickly motorbike and go cruising down Lahore’s roads in search of a story, he prefers to live by himself.

He may move slowly and some of the bones in his body might creak now and then, but he loves his independence. His needs are few and he is quite happy in his own space. Every newspaper in the city sends him a complimentary copy and his mornings are spent reading.

Some time ago when Chacha was taken ill, Cecil insisted that he move in with him. However, the day Chacha felt well enough to amble around, he returned to his own place. He lost his wife, a remarkable lady who had amazing collections of matchboxes and dolls, to name just two, a few years ago. Her things are exactly where they always were and nothing has been moved.

Chacha’s vast collection of negatives is also tucked away here and there in the house, as are his albums of newspaper clips dating back to the early 1930s. Next time you are in Lahore and want to read about the rise of Hitler, all you have to do is visit 7/10 Jail Road. Chacha has them all, yellowed and somewhat brittle, but still there, Swastikas and what have you.

Chacha described to me the other day his first meeting with Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The Pakistan Times had just started publishing and was housed in the same building on the Mall as its rival, the Civil and Military Gazette. Chacha had already sold some pictures to the new newspaper that the Quaid-i-Azam himself had founded, as some years earlier he had founded Dawn. Faiz said to Chacha, “Mr Chaudhry, can you take a picture of the front of the building which should show the names of our two newspapers, PT and Imroze, but you must make the building appear longer than it is.” Chacha said it could not be done unless the picture also showed the C & M.G. sign.

That, Faiz said, would not do, adding, ‘I know you can do it.” Chacha did do it by including two trees that stood in front of the building and brushing off the last letters of the rival paper’s name from his negative. Faiz was thrilled and ordered 10 copies. When Chacha brought them in, Faiz told the accountant to pay Chacha Rs 12 for each print. “I will only charge what I charge others, three rupees a print and not a penny more.” That may have been yet another reason that Chacha, who also taught chemistry at St. Anthony’s to supplement his earnings from freelance press photography, was engaged as the staff photographer of the Pakistan Times.

Only once during his long and remarkable career at the newspaper, did Chacha come close to leaving. He recalled that story for me the other day. Mian Iftikharuddin had asked Chacha to cover an event at the Aitchison College, which Chacha had duly done, despite earlier having gone to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the PAF, where he had downed more than one glass of snake juice.

Some days later, Iftikharuddin asked Chacha why he had not covered the Aitchison function. Chacha said he had. Iftikharuddin, who must have had a bad morning, told Chacha he was “lying”. “No one tells me I am lying. If you don’t read your own newspaper then that is your problem. And I no longer want to work for you. My dues should be sent to my home,” Chacha said as he stormed out of the room. “You can’t leave,” Iftikharuddin said. “Then try to stop me,” Chacha replied as he strode out of the office, with the owner and chief executive of the Progressive Papers Ltd. running after him. Next morning, the doorbell rang quite early. “Who the heck can it be?” Chacha said to his wife. As he opened the door, who should be out there but Mian Iftikharuddin in his car, accompanied by his chauffeur. “What do you want?” Chacha asked. “Chaudhry, I have come to take you back. How can you leave!” he implored. But Chacha was unmoved. “I am a Rajput and no one tells me I am lying,” Chacha replied. Iftikharuddin told Chacha he wasn’t leaving until Chacha changed his mind. “The answer is no,” Chacha replied with finality, “because I am an employee of the Pakistan Times, not one of the tillers on your lands.”

That was when Chacha’s wife pulled him inside and said, “Look the Mian has come himself. What more do you want?” Chacha relented but said to Mian Iftikharuddin, “All right, but only on certain conditions. You will not order me around. My orders will only come from my editor who is my boss, and not from you.” The Mian said that was the way it would be from now on, adding, “Let’s go now.” “It is too early, no one is in yet, go home,” Chacha said as a relieved and beaming Mian Iftikharuddin drove off.

My advice to the young journalists of today would be not to try this sort of thing with their owners, most of whom are also editors. They would be shown the door before they have counted three. There are no more Mian Iftikharuddins in this country, and hardly any F.E. Chaudhries alive to invoke their memory.

And one last bit. Chacha was the one at the Pakistan Times we always borrowed money from. His memory is still sharp as a razor, so it is strange why he did not ask me to refund the tenner he had lent me back in 1968 on a strict promise of return within a week. All I can say is: Chacha Zindabad.

Click here for the evolving F.E. Choudhry Gallery at ATP.

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