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Society | Past continuous

A new breed of archivists are liberating our small histories from neglect and slow death
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First Published: Fri, Dec 21 2012. 06 25 PM IST
Manuscripts being preserved at the Academy of Sanskrit Research, Melkote, Karnataka. Photo: Raghuram Ashok and L. Sreenivasa
Manuscripts being preserved at the Academy of Sanskrit Research, Melkote, Karnataka. Photo: Raghuram Ashok and L. Sreenivasa
I waited for the monsoons to end last year, before I sent off my collection,” says Charles Correa, one of India’s finest architects, wistfully. He spent two years annotating and cross-referencing his complete collection of architectural drawings and models. It is now housed with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), in London, which will hold a large exhibition to showcase it in May 2013. The decision to send it away came only after repeatedly asking Indian archives if they would store his work. “Nobody could. They don’t have the infrastructure, which is not that much, if you think about it—just some air conditioning and the will to preserve. But in London it will be kept well. Yet, I was hurt by the thought that it would not be accessible to Indians. My work is located here. It belongs here. So I made copies of every single piece. I am trying to work with the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), Mumbai, to see how it can be made accessible digitally, hyperlinking it, on CDs or online. That’s still a work in progress though,” he says.
Correa is not alone—architect Raj Rewal’s collection will similarly head to the Centre Pompidou in Paris shortly.
Bhanu Athaiya, costume designer for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1983, returned the Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), Los Angeles, earlier this year. She told The Mumbai Mirror in December that she did not trust India to preserve it suitably given the loss of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medal from Shantiniketan.
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Bhanu Athaiya, costume designer for Gandhi, after her 1983 Oscar win. Photo: Bettman/Corbis
Photographer and architect Ram Rahman tells of the personal dance archive of his mother, danseuse Indrani Rahman, languishing for years, alongside that of his grandmother, danseuse Ragini Devi. “There is simply no institute in India to give such things to. My sister and I finally decided to donate to the New York Public Library’s Lincoln Centre as my mother was associated with them. The public have access to photographs covering two generations of multiple dance forms, performances and videos,” Rahman says.
For a nation that constantly references and rewrites its past, we have a shocking lack of affinity towards its documentation. As Rahman points out, all our museums are a legacy of the British need to document their conquests; prior to which, in India, it was the ruling elite or the temples that were the repositories of art or artefacts. The Indian attitude towards preservation of records is best depicted by Dayanita Singh’s 2011 photographic series File Room in which bundles of folders are piled up in tottering shelves. Fading oral traditions, given priority over written ones, have ensured there are even fewer methods of preservation open to us.
But as the post-Partition generation becomes older, and those who witnessed it pass on, there will be an increasing need to find a reliable archive that has stored, not just the historical facts of it, but its more humane details. While it is not new that we lack an efficient set of archives—well documented by researcher Dinyar Patel for The New York Times and The Hindu in April this year—there is an increasing need to do something about it.
Bearers of the past
A number of academics are now opening their cupboards and airing the past. The exhibit Delhi modern: The architectural photographs of Madan Mahatta supported by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, was curated by Rahman and held without fanfare at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, earlier this month. It is one of the few photographic documentations of 1950s Nehruvian modernist architecture, and was almost lost when Mahatta began distributing his own negatives.
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Danseuse Indrani Rahman, late 1950s, shot by Habib Rahman—the image is now part of the New York Public Library. Photo: Habib Rahman/Courtesy Ram Rahman
Rahman, whose father was an associate of Mahatta, says he ran around retrieving the negatives, and was glad to be able to bring the beautiful black and whites back to life. Almost no such record exists of the indigenous architectural heritage of the Mumbai of that time. A book that once documented photographer Mittal Bedi’s work is now out of print, as is One Hundred Years One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon—An Oral History by Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon published by Seagull publishers.
“In a world that consistently values the permanent, we are celebrating the fleeting and the ephemeral,” says Parmesh Shahani, head of the Godrej Culture Lab. On 15 December, a 60,000 sq. ft warehouse in Godrej colony at Vikhroli, that was demolished the following day, was transformed into the one-day-only Museum of Memories. An initiative of the Lab, the transitory museum performed two more crucial functions, Shahani says. “We questioned why a museum should only archive the dead past when it can be a snapshot of the vibrant present. We also questioned authority: creating a user-generated collaborative exhibit rather than one whose places and participants have been pre-decided by someone else.”
The museum, born of an organic coming together of artists, performers and events, featured performances by Junoon, the new theatre group started by Sanjna Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar; Visual Disobedience, a buskers initiative; a live fashion photo shoot for Verve magazine which formed a performance sketch, painting, graffiti across walls, an alternate reality game, and one where visitors got a free cupcake for every memory they whispered into the host’s ear.
Vintage typewriters in the corner allowed visitors to record their memories, of any sort. Visitors also brought one item that meant a lot to them to contribute as an exhibit in the Museum of Memories for the day.
In New Delhi, fashion designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul has spent the last three years putting together an archive of India’s design history, The Design Project India. “I grew up in Ahmedabad in the 1980s, which was rich in design thought at the time. Later when I went back to National Institute of Design, which is one of the oldest design institutes in the world, I realized there was no documentation of over 50 years of such a rich history. Most of it is oral and based on my access to the people who were part of its evolution,” Kaul says. The archives, currently textual and visual, is a work of progress that builds in his Delhi office, and awaits digitization.
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A model strikes a Nargis pose at a studio shoot, 1950, from the Indian Memory Project. Photo courtesy: Anusha Yadav/Indian Memory Project
In Bangalore, Anusha Yadav, a photographer who, in 2010, began the Indian Memory Project, a free-to-the-public online photographic archive of personal memories, continues to push at the fluctuating interest that the project elicits. “When someone covers it, and it’s written about, there is a spurt. Right now, the initial enthusiasm has died down, but it’s a process,” she says.
Yadav sources images that bear a significant memory or importance when she either visits homes, or researches; she traces and tracks them down herself. While people understand the project, she says, it is not always easy to get them to part with their images. The online archive today has 97 images.
State versus the individual
The archiving instinct operates at two levels and both run counter to each other. One is institutional; the State as custodian of the collective memory, which then percolates down to provide a context to the individual. The second is individual; the expansion from the individual, his life, to his socio-cultural and political context, extending outwards. In India, both have been rigorously neglected, the latter more so than the former.
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Architect Charles Correa against a backdrop of his architectural models. Photo: Neha Nath/The India Today Group/Getty Images
The State, even as it floats plans to open up to a new generation, remains a slow lumbering beast, burdened by its past. The Raj Bhavan archives, opened to the public in August in Mumbai, are accessible only to students doing their graduation, post graduation or PhD, and only when equipped with a letter from their departments. Access, even so, is only by prior appointment. Projects to document the history of the mill workers, point out researchers at PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research), remain trapped in red tape. Anita Patil-Deshmukh, executive director, PUKAR, says they have approached the government to use the documentation that has gone into their recording of oral and photographic histories—over 15,000-photographs—of Girangaon (the mill worker district) and Dharavi areas, as the content to feed the museum when it is up and running.
“Our aim is to get the histories out in an area where the public can access it. Right now, where does the common man go to know more about the subject? There is no public archive of our history,” she says.
Whose responsibility is it to keep our memories alive? When art collector and visual archivist for the Festival of India, Lance Dane, died earlier this year, while his prized collection of coins went to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Delhi, the body of knowledge, the details of bearing witness to history, irretrievably died with him. The Times of India archives, one of the largest sources of news in the country’s history and ranging back to first-hand information from pre-Independence India, is accessible only at a fee, and valuable detailing is kept alive by individuals who have been working there for decades. When Kekoo Gandhy died in November this year, an obituary lamented that the veteran art gallerist took with him a body of irreplaceable knowledge about the origins of modern Indian art.
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A Bajaj auto ad, circa 1980, indicating India’s innovation in functional design, from The Design Project India archives
The chronicling of memories is a chicken and the egg paradigm. Archiving is equally the responsibility of the individual or institutions as it is of the State.
Besides smaller initiatives such as the Sparrow (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), an archive devoted to women’s history and issues in Versova; the Centre for Education and Documentation (CED) at Colaba, which is an archive of city-related news clippings; HELP (Health Education Library for People), which is devoted to health and medicine, only the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which documents science-related research, and the National Centre of Performing Arts (NCPA) are individual institutions that provide a preservation service in Mumbai.
In film, the Wadia Movietone archives were born of the late Riyad Vinci Wadia’s passion for cinema and has recently revamped its archives and website to offer CDs/DVDs or prints for screening of rare newsreels, films themed variously on subjects or on classical Indian music. Between 2003 and 2009, all government archives—Films Division, the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and the National Film Archive of India—received funding to digitize and restore their extensive collections. The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune too contains considerable archives.
None have achieved the breezy open access and usage for the public like the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Film and Television Archive, for example, which draws from its database to host festivals and screenings. The Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation Ltd had floated plans for a state-of-the-art public archive at Filmcity, Goregaon, due to open by May 2013, but these have yet to translate to a concrete point of access.
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A pop-up mini archive set up by the Godrej Archives team at the Godrej Museum of Memories, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Similarly, the Sir JJ School of Art does not have images or art works of its most famous students, nor even their graduation rosters.
A taste for history
A group of thinkers came together in the restoration showroom of Anemos in Mumbai in July. Among them were Anupam Sah, chief conservator of the Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly called the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India) and Vrunda Pathare, chief archivist of the Godrej Archives (and formerly associated with the ONGC Museum project). Their objective was to figure out why India is not drawn to archiving, hoping to hold workshops that would instill an enthusiasm for preserving the past.
Pathare explained that the project sprung from an initiative to preserve Godrej’s own archives, and the realization that it could not be separated from the external context of Mumbai’s and India’s industrial heritage. The project extended into over 200 oral histories of the workers, employees and the changing view of history that individual perspectives could offer. “We have a tendency to look at history as the stories of leaders or major events, but it is also the impact on the common man. We miss out these human stories when we document,” Pathare says.
At a recent panel discussion retracing the origins of the Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai, three generations of architects—Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta—rued the city’s inability to connect the discourse of the past to the present. As most academics point out, the lack of documentation of the past is only valid as a concern in hindsight, when a resource is long lost.
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The IIT Delhi staircase, designed by J. K. Chowdhury, shot in 1965 by Madan Mahatta. Photo: JK Chowdhury, photo 1965, Madan Mahatta
But what is the point of archiving, if all acquired documentation remains off limits to the public? In July, the Central government spent £700,000 (Rs.60 million) to purchase M.K. Gandhi’s correspondence with Hermann Kallenbach, a German-Jewish bodybuilder, from an auction at Sotheby’s. They were discovered by historian Ramachandra Guha at the home of Kallenbach’s grand niece Isa Sarid. They have since disappeared into the National Archives of India, which stipulates “bona fide” research as a term of access.
It is individual efforts that drive archiving today. These collections are often haphazard, or do not follow a system of cross referencing that allow for the emergence of a nationwide network. In a sense, individual movements are liberating the notion of archiving as a State-run function. “There is a difference in the way the State records an event and the way individuals record it. The State will tell you that the mill owners fought, but the nuances are only available in individual stories,” Pathare points out.
Driving change in the individual attitude towards archiving today is urbanization and, correspondingly, migration. The instinct to preserve in those who migrate is stronger. Increasingly, fewer people are able to trace a direct line through their ancestries, or live in an environment that sustains it. The references that go back to a place or a time when connections were stronger, are today vital.
As Yadav puts it, what fuels the archival instinct is curiosity. “At the end of the day, every addition is a piece of the puzzle of the subcontinent, of who we are.”
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First Published: Fri, Dec 21 2012. 06 25 PM IST
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