When Namrata Mehra, an associate vice president at Godrej Properties, was working along with her team on a 34-acre master plan for an old soap factory land of Godrej, she was faced with a conundrum. The land in Vikhroli was peppered with old structures like cogeneration plants, oil silos and boilers. “We thought these structures looked pretty with old roof forms, old chimneys, old buildings," says Mehra. “We did not want to demolish the entire structure." She wanted to know more about the land and consulted Vrunda Pathare, chief archivist of Godrej Archives, which records all documents, files and objects related to the history of the company.

The idea for setting up the archives came while Godrej Group was celebrating its centenary in 1997, when the then chairman Sohrab Godrej decided it was the time to look back. “He wanted to understand what made Godrej a household name," says Pathare. “He was the man, who thought of setting up the archive and store the stories of the company’s past, so that the people in the company could get inspiration from it. It also makes the consumer aware of its rich history. He wanted to make it available to the researchers, so that those who wanted to know the business history of India could come and refer to the historical material."

There are different ways in which employees interact with the archive—researching for a presentation or a product design, legal issues, as well as creating the archives and oral histories by recording their lives and experiences. They also record important current activities. The tour of the archives is also part of the induction programme of new recruits. “It is a good way to create a sense of belonging through the knowledge of the company’s legacy," says Pathare.

Mehra thinks that past events can fill you with a sense of pride in your work and recounts an interesting anecdote that she learnt from the archives. “Godrej was formally founded in 1897. But we could have been founded two years earlier. Ardeshir Godrej’s first foray was in medical instruments and he wanted them stamped ‘Made in India’. The British gentleman, who he applied to, told him that if they were models of elephants, you could stamp them ‘Made in India’, but if medical instruments were stamped ‘Made in India’, no one is going to use them," she says.

History plays a role

The first typewriter and the first ballot box used in the first Indian election are kept in the permanent exhibition space that opened within the Godrej campus in Vikhroli. Some of the other objects include a Vatni soap ad with Madhubala on the poster and an old model of a Godrej refrigerator that looks like a hefty granary. The exhibition has an immersive feel with oral history recordings and these familiar objects . “We wanted an experiential feel where people can be part of the exhibition. We felt that if it was static, people would not be interested," says Pathare. The archive is open to people from outside the company too through prior appointments .

The archive has old issues of industrial, engineering and business journals. They provide a broader picture of what was happening in the manufacturing sector in the country at the time. “This is a crucial decade when the idea of modern India was emerging and Jawaharlal Nehru said industries are modern temples. You can see in these documents what kind of vision India had at that time," says Pathare.

The archive also records oral histories of the employees and long-time dealers. One of the most interesting nuggets is that of the first woman employee of the company, who had to apply for pregnancy leave but the company did not have a policy as there were no other women. So, they asked her to find out what the government recommends and they would grant that.

Now, nobody in the company can throw their records without consulting the archive team. “This is like managing the memory of the company," says Pathare.

Book Tales is a series which looks at in-house reading and researching facilities that are helping employees to upskill and work smarter.