A serene campus spread over 5.5 acres opposite the bustling Egmore Railway Station in Chennai is a treasure trove of historical events and happenings and is sought after for research by students and several in the film industry.
The campus is home to nearly 40 crore records, including those relating to the hanging of Kattabomman, the announcement of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, Marudhanayagam, Velunachinyar, V.O. Chidambaranar, Indian freedom fighters, Swadeshi movement, land records, voter lists, gazettes and tenders.
Primarily called the Madras Record Office, established in 1909, the Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research is one of the oldest and largest document repositories in south India.
The oldest record at the department dates back to 1670 and preserves the first written communication between the East India Company and the Court of Directors in England. Initially, all the communications recorded and preserved at the repository between the two relates to trade correspondence. Gradually, from 1752, this turns into military correspondence and later records of other departments such as revenue and health start figuring.
The Madras Records Office was set up as a place to store the records for safe-keeping and future reference by Talboys Wheeler, Henry Dodwell. who was the first full time officer, and B.S. Baliga, who was the curator. Initially, the records were stored at Fort. St. George. As the records started becoming voluminous, a new building was constructed. The building’s architecture is of Indo-Sarcenic style and was built in straight lines to ensure adequate natural lighting and fresh air.
An official explained that the Archives has nine stacks — large record rooms that hold the voluminous amount of information. The department has a process of restoration of the old paper or parchment that holds these records. On a separate floor, the damaged records are ‘mended’ — a process in which chiffon gauze is used to place each paper on and is stuck with a special paste made of maida, glycerin and copper sulphate. It is strengthened with handmade paper. “This process increases the lifespan of the records by at least 50 years,” according to P. Vijayaraja, Research Officer, Tamil Nadu Archives.
Interestingly, the archives are split as pre-mutiny records and post-mutiny records. This refers to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny following which the East India Company was abolished and the reins of the country fell into the hands of the Queen of England.
After Madras was bombed during the Second World War, the entire archives were shifted to Nellore and Palamaner, Mr. Vijayaraja said. This was done as a precautionary measure against air raids during the World War and all the transactions of the department were carried out from these two places. The records were brought back to the Madras Records Office in 1950. It was renamed Tamil Nadu Archives in 1969 and subsequently rechristened as Tamil Nadu Archives and Historical Research in 1973. An IAS officer was also appointed to run the department from then on.
Mr. Vijayaraja said that apart from mending of old records, the department imparts training on archival management to the entire Tamil Nadu, brings out gazetteers, provides library facilities, issues copies of records under the Right to Information Act (which has emerged as a key function) and encourages historical writing through the Council of Historical Records.
The department is digitising all the records in its possession. G. Prakash, Commissioner of the Department, said it was an important task and the process of digitising old settlement records were currently under way.
Mr. Vijayaraja said that so far, around 15 TB of data had been scanned. They will have to be indexed and catalogued and metadata will have to be created before a searchable format is available to members of the public.
Since digitisation of so many records is a humongous process, the department is working with other departments such as Tamil Virtual Academy, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments, the Directorate of Survey and Settlement. They will take over the digitisation of the records pertaining to them.
“The idea is that the physical archives become ‘e-archives’ so that information is easily available to the common man. We have to digitise 40 crore records. We have a long way to go,” Mr. Vijayaraja said.