Hashtag, history: There’s a growing appetite for online archives from South Asia

Stories, photographs, audio visual recordings — the history of the subcontinent is being curated carefully with the help of social media

Updated - November 30, 2019 05:43 pm IST

Published - November 30, 2019 04:19 pm IST

Photo from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

Photo from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

An old black-and-white photo shows an Indian soldier from the British Indian Army posing with his lady love somewhere in Italy. The accompanying caption reveals that the soldier, also a football player, had gone to Italy for a tournament when he met the woman and they fell in love. The soldier’s father, however, opposed their love, and asked him to cut all ties with her. This photograph was taken by the estranged couple as a keepsake. This tragic love story garnered more than 20,000 likes on an Instagram account called ‘Brown History’.

It is just one of many such personal histories that can be found on the Brown History page, which opened on Instagram in March 2019. Curated by Montreal-based electrical engineer Ahsun Zafar, the account shares lesser-known narratives from South Asian history. The posts and the black-and-white photographs encourage followers to send in their own material from family albums. And so the archive grows.

Many histories

Brown History is not the only Instagram page looking back at South Asian history: there is Gulf ⇄ South Asia, SOAS Postcards, Indian History Pictures, and many more. The appetite for personal histories online is growing.

Guneeta Singh Bhalla founded the website 1947 Partition Archives, and eight years on, the archive, an ocean of audio-video recordings of Partition survivors, has gathered 8,000 stories and 40,000 old photographs and documents. It is now present on every social media platform, including Instagram.

“What we have done is to take material that might be boring in an archive format and curate it in a way that is accessible and interesting to the public. People share it, learn something new from it,” says Bhalla.

One story they recently archived was of singer Vilayat Khan, who had to leave his village Goslan in Punjab and migrate to Sargodha in Pakistan during Partition. He went into depression and lost his ability to sing. After 10 years, his father and he decided to return to India and they managed to resettle in their ancestral village. Khan began to sing again, becoming a well-known exponent of dhaddi music and going on to win several awards.

Photo from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

Photo from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

I know her

The Citizens’ Archive of India took shape in 2016 to gather and share audio-visual stories of those born in pre-Independent India. In the three years since, the online archive has amassed stories of over 210 citizens, more than 340 hours of interviews, and about 1,300 items in its material collection. Archive director Malvika Bhatia talks of how the stories are sometimes completed on social media. “A year ago, we interviewed a woman doctor. I was handling the camera and my colleague was conducting the interview. I posted a few pictures on Instagram, and immediately some of her students began to recognise her.”

Says Bhatia: “These are ordinary people, not famous people or freedom fighters; and when they recall their times, people start connecting with their stories and begin sharing their own experiences, say, in the Quit India Movement, and their stories appear much more real than what we read in academic books.”

Photos from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

Photos from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

Ayesha Saldanha grew up in the U.K. and then moved to Bahrain. She was interested in the long shared history between South Asia and the Gulf region.

She decided to share all the material on the Gulf-South Asia connection that existed in books, academic papers, and archives in an accessible, non-academic format, and thus came about Gulf ⇄ South Asia. “I also wanted to invite people to share their stories. An Instagram account seemed the best way to do both,” she says. Several followers sent in personal photos and stories. And Saldanha also translates posts from Arabic Instagram accounts, which share photos and documents related to the history of Gulf Arabs in South Asia.

Instagram account SOAS Postcards, run by Emily Stevenson and Stephen Hughes from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, originated from an exhibition the duo organised this year at Brunei Gallery, showcasing postcards from Chennai and Bengaluru in the 1900s. Now, the Insta account shares postcards from all parts of colonial India.

Photo from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

Photo from the collections of The Citizens’ Archive of India

Often, it’s the back of the card, with printer, message and sender’s name, that is avidly checked. For instance, followers were excited to recognise the publisher’s address on a 1930s postcard of freedom fighter and Gujarati writer Lilavati Munshi.

Epochal shots

Indian History Pictures is another account that has caught the fancy of history buffs with its rare epochal photographs — the first Republic Day parade in India, the first general election in India, Tagore with Helen Keller in New York, Isro scientists ferrying India’s first communication satellite on a bullock cart, and more.

While some of these online forums are excellent repositories, not everything qualifies as an ‘archive,’ says Anusha Yadav of the Indian Memory Project. An ‘archive’ is retrievable information, and the content is cross-referenced, keyworded, tagged and categorised. “An archive is a library, and an independent Instagram account is not,” she says. According to Yadav, even though these Instagram accounts are beautiful, their stories get lost in a search-unfriendly scrolling ether. It takes a lot of work to keep thousands of followers interested and informed, but it is a missed opportunity for treasures that could have been available for study, research and retrieval in a more collective way.

Photo from the collections of Gulf-SouthAsia

Photo from the collections of Gulf-SouthAsia

When it comes to online archives, the Indian Memory Project is a trailblazer of sorts. Founded in 2010, it traces the story of the subcontinent through visuals and narratives.

The archive is keyworded and tagged, enabling visitors to easily read accounts from the Partition, the Bengal famine, the women’s empowerment movement, etc. “The idea of belonging is very strong, it will never go away. And these stories of the subcontinent are really important,” says Yadav. “Much of the world has passed through here and an archive lets us see both individual ideas and collective cultural patterns.”

The writer is a journalist with an interest in art and culture.

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