A new breed of archivists are liberating our small histories from neglect and slow death
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.
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.