Meet Farooq Issa
Owner of the famed ‘Phillips – European and Oriental Art’ that was established in 1860, Farooq Issa is a natural history aficionado and a keeper of India’s wildlife heritage. He met Bittu Sahgal in his exquisitely maintained shop, which looks not unlike a small museum, and spoke of his passion for art and culture… and his fascination for shikar records.
The slaughter of tigers to meet new demands of Tibetans for skins shocked you, but you are probably India’s leading expert on shikar documentation.
Yes, I do have a modest collection of books on shikar and natural history and also some old shikar photographs that I am particularly fond of. But that was another age and is now a part of history in much the way that wars, famines, floods and other human-caused traumas are. I am incensed at the terrible trend in Tibet where the new fashion for animal skins is driving tigers and leopards into oblivion. The fact is that when India’s forests were extensive, shikar was unable to wipe out most animals. The tiger well and truly began to go under only after its forests were wiped out.
I agree. It is the double-barrelled attack of forest loss and poaching that is driving the tiger to its grave. Tell me Farooq, did you study art history formally, or is all this the result of passion and family tradition?
I studied ancient Indian culture at the Elphinstone College. That is what truly set me on my path. What most people must understand is that history is not a dry as dust subject; rather it is a chronicle of human lives with its ups and downs, foibles and fancies. When you come right down to it, history provides us with a window into our own lives.
As I look around, it occurs to me that protecting these priceless documents that record history must be your most difficult task.
You can say that again. The weather in much of India, certainly Mumbai, is not conducive to keeping paper, books, paintings and textiles in good condition over any length of time. Humidity is the real killer. Although restoration is possible, it’s always a short-term measure because humidity constantly waits like an assassin to take its toll. A solution would be to have climate-controlled environments for precious collections – but being expensive that is not always an option for most people or institutions.
What about the law of the land? I understand that registering art works can be a nightmare.
I would not quite call it a nightmare, but it’s somewhat complicated and cumbersome. As far as heritage laws go, I’m completely for preserving India’s treasures. But having said that, I feel some rationalisation is necessary – as is the case in most other countries including Italy and England. What constitutes a national treasure and what doesn’t? Surely we can’t leave such decisions to those who do not understand history or art. I doubt that anyone would disagree with the need to protect antiques that are significantly part of the history of a country. But imposing a blanket ban on everything? That hardly protects our heritage. In fact, it is usually counter-productive.
Yours is one of Mumbai’s oldest and best known families. What do you make of the changes you see today in Mumbai… in India?
I think I have adjusted to the changes, but mine is the fourth generation in the business and I rather suspect that my grandfather would have conniptions, if he were to step into Mumbai today. Theirs was a more graceful age.
So who actually started the business?
Phillips was bought by my great-grandfather, Soomar, in 1920 from, who else but, Mr. Phillips. Ours was a large family of 13 and Phillips was handed over to two of his sons. At the time, it was a high-class emporium catering to the British and to wealthy Indians including nawabs, maharajas and the super rich, many of whom were extremely friendly with my grandfather, Ishaque.
Let’s come back to shikar. You are not a hunter, but you are totally taken up with hunters and their erstwhile world.
I’ve always been very fond of reading about shikar – have grown up on a staple diet of Corbett and Anderson – and no amount of repeat readings dull the enthusiasm. Had I been born 50 years earlier, I am sure I would have been an enthusiastic shikari too, rather than an armchair explorer!
You would certainly have been keeping company with the rich and famous!
I would indeed and, as you might imagine, the rich and famous of the day had very few real outdoor pursuits, of which shikar was possibly the most popular. But that was then. Today, it is awful to see India’s wildlife going so steadily downhill, especially the tiger. I do hope some sort of international pressure can be brought to bear on China to prevent our tigers landing up as skins in that country. It’s the same short-sightedness that is destroying the humpbacks for their meat, sharks for their fins and beluga sturgeon for caviar. The shikaris of yore and the maharajas seemed to have a better understanding of how to conserve the animals they hunted by setting aside protected forests and declaring ‘closed seasons’.
Was your family keen on shikar?
My grandfather would invariably be invited by his friends and associates to take part in shikar parties. He was no mean shot and several trophies continue to be on display in our bungalow near Porbander. But shikar was never our business. We dealt in all manner of luxuries. Our shop stayed in business by catering to those who had the money to indulge themselves. But Phillips sells none of these luxuries today.
But Phillips sells none of these luxuries today. Around me here, all I see is fine art and memorabilia of a bygone age.
True. But the marble statues, the glass chandeliers, the ornate flower pots and snuff boxes, were the indulgences of yesterday. Today, of course, most homes would not even have the space to keep most of these things.
Everything was imported then right?
Virtually everything. Not because the same things could not be made in India, but because there was snob value to goods brought in ‘from Blighty’. In the early 1950s, when restrictions began to be imposed on imports, luxury products from England and Europe – Aspreys’ leather goods, picnic baskets, cameras, perfumes and toiletries and the like – became difficult and expensive to bring in. Meanwhile, my grandfather had become an obsessive collector. He thought why not start selling some of these things at Phillips so the art gradually took centre stage and luxury imports took a back seat.
So some of these rare items you have in stock even today were bought then?
Yes. Those were also the golden years for buying art in India because the abolition of privy purses meant that royalty had to sell their treasures to keep going. Hyderabad, Bikaner, Kashmir, Mysore, you name it… all were keen to sell their ‘junk’ in exchange for cash, which had suddenly become very short. Many customers – those who had patronised Phillips a decade or so earlier – now came back to Phillips to sell their goods as ‘surplus to requirements’, which in those days meant huge godowns full of furniture, chandeliers and art.
It’s a very technical trade. How did you actually learn the ropes?
I grew up surrounded by art and antiques. My father Habib brought me and my sister Muneera to the shop to play as children. Through college, I worked part time at the shop, meeting customers, dealers, hearing their conversations, learning about great buys from my father and grandfather and also some not so great ones – the pitfalls. People say that great dealers and collectors are born, not made – I’m not sure how true that is, but certainly in my case I’m lucky I was born into a collecting family. It is probably in my genes!
You love this, don’t you?
Absolutely. For me the thrill of the chase is a huge motivation – I’m talking about art, not animals! When I am invited to someone’s house to ‘see their things’, I always go. I love to see how people live, what they collect, how they display their things. And if perchance, I find something to buy, that’s a bonus. But, it is sad when people are forced to sell treasured possessions because they really need the money. But, I suppose that’s life. I must add that at Phillips we often find that those with limited means are the most passionate collectors – willing even to pay in installments every month toward their purchase. My father didn’t mind that at all and neither do I. In fact, good taste and money seldom go together.
Is it still the same today?
Collecting trends have changed – the younger breed of collectors – those with the money and, hopefully, taste – are opting for newer collecting fields. Of course, contemporary art is at the forefront, but so is folk and tribal art. It’s also something that strikes a chord within me – particularly because it’s so little researched and written about. There is still a chance to buy great works and I think people should. There should ideally be a museum for this kind of art in a city like Mumbai.
What is the future of the fine art trade in India?
Possibly the same as it would be anywhere else in the world. Wealth will always chase exclusive art. Phillips has always stocked a diverse range of merchandise, but the really great works like Moghul miniatures, jade, silver and fine bronzes are becoming practically impossible to find. We therefore veer towards furniture, decorative art, folk and tribal art and, more recently, high-quality reprints of old photographs, maps, prints, lithographs and posters with Indian themes. Many customers for instance want vintage images of Bombay and other cities and originals are truly prohibitive now. Reprints on archival paper, priced reasonably allow people to enjoy art and learn to appreciate it too. The same goes for old shikar photographs and aquatints.
Thank you Farooq. Thanks also for the loan of the incredible images you have always made available to Sanctuary.
It’s a pleasure. You use the images to protect what I love. I should be thanking you.
by Bittu Sahgal, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVI No. 1, February 2006.