To provide a bulwark against what he called the “intellectual desert” that was Bombay in 1804, James Mackintosh, the chief justice of the recorder’s court, founded the Literary Society of Bombay. After a series of name changes, it has evolved into today’s Asiatic Society of Mumbai (ASM), the circulation and research library housed in the 1830 Town Hall building in the city’s Fort neighbourhood. Colonial officers like Mackintosh might not have been able to see the forest for the trees, but their predilection for record keeping was a bonanza for the libraries, archives and reading rooms that eventually passed from their purview to India’s.
But many of those records, from rare manuscripts and books to geological surveys and diplomatic correspondence, in Mumbai’s libraries and archives have deteriorated, their pages wilted by the humid weather or eaten by firebrats and silverfish. The situation at ASM is emblematic of the rot taking place in libraries and many of Mumbai’s repositories of printed matter, and scholars and archivists say the decay has reached a critical mass. “There is some amazing stuff out there,” says historian Ramachandra Guha, “but with some notable exceptions, there has been a steady decline in the condition (of India’s archives) in the 30 years I have been a researcher. The situation is grim.”
Fine print: The archive has records dating back to the 17th century. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Help could be on the way for some archives, as conservation initiatives are under way. At the ASM library, succour has been provided in the form of assistance from the German cultural institute, Goethe-Institut. “Book conservation is an area where Germany has a lot of expertise, and India is a country where you have quite a lot of treasures,” says Marla Stukenberg, director of the Goethe-Institut, Mumbai.
On a visit to the Asiatic Society’s special collection room tucked away in the building’s penetralia, Aroon Tikekar, the society’s president, reveals a first edition of John Gould’s illustrated Birds of Asia 1850-1883, its pages flecked with acid stains, a Portuguese map of Goa with holes worn through its surface causing it to look like a cartoon treasure map and an approximately 800-year-old palm leaf Buddhist manuscript so fragile that it can’t be cleaned.
A handwritten letter from Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.
Incorporated in 1830 as a branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland by then governor John Malcolm, the library has been a repository for all kinds of printed matter. Today the building is in the midst of a renovation, its facade shrouded by scaffolding, its durbar hall and rosewood-lined periodicals room off limits and its giant statue of Malcolm packed in a wooden box. The corridors of the library’s basement are heaving with bundles of books from the library’s stacks. The objects in the special collections room haven’t fared much better. Until recently, the room wasn’t air-conditioned. Even now, it’s only cooled during working hours.
As part of the German project, two conservators from the ASM travelled to the Berlin State Library in October, where they were trained in modern paper conservation techniques such as de-acidification. The ASM will also send three of its most valuable books to the library in Berlin for restoration. Each book will take one conservator a month to restore, Stukenberg says. The Goethe-Institut will also provide cabinets for the more than 1,300 valuable maps.
With more than 5,000 books in the special collection room alone—and many outside it that might belong there— Stukenberg calls the task “a Sisyphus project”.
Efforts are on to preserve, scan and digitize pages. Photos by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
“Many curators and archivists don’t know the extent of the materials they are sitting on,” says Guha, and the directorship of state archives is often a “punishment post” where bureaucrats go to languish. As a result, many collections too languish. In many cases, adds Guha, “you will be the first and last person to read some papers because they will crumble when you touch them.”
Housed in several locations throughout the state, The Maharashtra State Archives hold the lion’s share of the historical record of the region dating back to the 1630s. The Mumbai branch is housed in a cavernous space at Elphinstone College, also in Fort. Sitting on a table here for re-shelving is a bound Calendar of the ‘Quit India’ Movement in the Bombay Presidency and lining the floor are records of the British secret and political department dating from 1802, waiting to be scanned.
Inside, staffers are feverishly working to scan and digitize the records, starting with the most frail. So far, 5.4 million pages have been scanned out of more than 150 million.
Some researchers are concerned that time might be running out for many of the materials in the state archives. “Historically, it was one of the best managed of (India’s) state archives,” says Shekhar Krishnan, a historian completing a PhD in colonial Mumbai at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US. “But over the last 10 years, there has been a grievous decline. The last major classification was done in the late 1970s.”
Meanwhile, many of the state’s archives have been shifted here from Raj Bhavan in Malabar Hill, the seat of the state governor and, before independence, the British governor. Records since 1935 are still there, however, and they too are getting a tending to.
Thanks to a Rs 26 lakh grant from the state government for a three-year restoration project, the Raj Bhavan archives will be the first of their kind in India to be open to the public, according to Vikas Chandra Rastogi, secretary to the Maharashtra governor, K. Sankaranarayanan. The project—which will include a complete inventory and classification of the archives and storage in a newly built record room—is being overseen by Ashok Kharade, who spent 39 years as an archivist in The Maharashtra State Archives before his retirement in 2006.
Kharade is relishing the opportunity to get it right in the new Raj Bhavan archives, which will open to the public next year. At the time of Mint’s visit, he had personally catalogued and indexed 2,252 files, at the rate of two files per day. The completed files now sit in tidy bundles on shelves in an air-conditioned room, waiting to be moved to the new building. When it opens, “it will be the best archive in the nation”, Kharade says, beaming with pride. “And it will always be clean. I don’t like dusty stacks.”