Retrace History & Culture

We don’t know how to use our archives

From a series titled ‘Time Measures’ by Dayanita Singh, who discovered fabric bundles containing unknown documents in an archive in the country.

From a series titled ‘Time Measures’ by Dayanita Singh, who discovered fabric bundles containing unknown documents in an archive in the country.   | Photo Credit: Dayanita Singh

The recent lucky find of Padmaja Naidu’s papers has shed light on one of the greatest love stories of modern India

A grainy black-and-white photograph of people gathered at a dock, recently unearthed from the National Archives in the U.S., created a stir when the History channel claimed that it could present an alternative narrative to the ultimate fate of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart. While it has now been established that the image is not that of Earhart, the enormous attention that the picture received globally underscores the enduring power of archives.

For a nation obsessed with history, the vast Indian archives that tell us about our grand patrimony are given remarkable short shrift. From palm leaf manuscripts to contemporary ephemera, the vaults, stores and shelves of our institutes are richly populated with nuggets from our past.

Material culture

Not all these institutes across the subcontinent are suffixed with the word ‘archive,’ and this is perhaps one of the reasons why a true understanding of the word eludes the public imagination.

We tend to think of ‘archives’ as dusty books and land ownership documents shelved in government offices across the country, and don’t see them as springboards for the academic journeys of many an intrepid researcher and archivist.

Inside National Archives of India in New Delhi.

Inside National Archives of India in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

Archives may be physical homes for historical records, but they are also crucial repositories of the varied forms of material cultures we have inherited. Museums and libraries often put out just a small sampling for public view from the much larger corpus of material they preserve in their vaults. That not all of it is accessible to the public is often cause for much heartburn.

Take, for instance, the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad. Its tightly regulated visitor entry policy means that most people assume that the museum is being parsimonious with its extraordinary treasure of Indian textiles and other collections. The truth is simply that the museum was created more as a repository of historic Indian textiles, and its mandate was to further research and publish works on its core collections. This it continues to do. Access to the lay visitor is, thus, not a priority for it.

The recent serendipitous find of Padmaja Naidu’s papers with her extended family’s correspondence in the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has helped shed light on one of the greatest love stories of modern India. The book, Mr and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, provides rare new insights into a complex cast of characters who animate the story of India and Pakistan’s freedom struggle.

The book superbly retells an established narrative: hated figures become human, patriarchy and the challenges faced by those braving inter-religious marriages are all laid bare, allowing us to examine the human cost of the freedom movement.

From a series titled ‘Time Measures’ by Dayanita Singh, who discovered fabric bundles containing unknown documents in an archive in the country.

From a series titled ‘Time Measures’ by Dayanita Singh, who discovered fabric bundles containing unknown documents in an archive in the country.   | Photo Credit: Dayanita Singh

In a wonderful fashion aside, Ruttie Jinnah emerges as one of the first to change established sartorial styles by adopting the diaphanous chiffon sari, a trend currently attributed to royal women from Princely India.

Unfortunately, archives across India seldom speak to us now. There are problems of access, poor systems of storage and retrieval, and of wear and tear of material by the sheer lack of housekeeping and by mishandling. Digitisation is clearly a way forward, but this is not about simply taking an image of an object. Millions of megabytes of images are not of much use if not accompanied by keywords and tabulation of metadata that will allow users to mine the archive. Information on provenance, size and date that accompanies an image or object gives valuable insights for research.

Unravelling the codes

When archiving in the 70s adopted computerised systems, it began conversations around using common standards for descriptive practices. This led to the establishment of global systems that vary across continents but have some common points.

From a series titled ‘Time Measures’ by Dayanita Singh, who discovered fabric bundles containing unknown documents in an archive in the country.

From a series titled ‘Time Measures’ by Dayanita Singh, who discovered fabric bundles containing unknown documents in an archive in the country.   | Photo Credit: Dayanita Singh

A perfect worldwide system is neither possible nor desirable. For instance, contrary to perceptions, the ancient Indian archiving system was far from being unsystematic. It’s the ransacking of ancient repositories, and the ruthless modern-era codification of them, that have lost us our older patterns of order along with crucial aide-memoirs like handwritten jottings or tying up of bunches of documents.

Most palace archives I have worked on provide a multitude of codes—these could be handwritten descriptions, seals or other notations made by officials of yore. The one recorded detail that never ceases to move me is behind almost every photograph at the City Palace Museum in Udaipur, where some diligent scribe has noted the day the photograph was taken as Krishna Paksha or Sukla Paksha, the dark half or the light half of the lunar month.

A handful of courses across the country train students in the archival sciences and record management. Their non-existent public profile and middling success has not exactly drawn in the brightest and the best of India. This is a real pity, because trained professionals who can address the changing demands of archiving are desperately needed. In the 70th anniversary of India’s freedom, a query that comes to mind is this: what are the new archives being created across the country?

The writer is Managing Director of Eka Archiving Services, where he tracks omitted histories and obscure contexts of mainstream stories.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 7:32:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/we-dont-know-how-to-use-our-archives/article19474766.ece

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