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Professor Mushirul Hasan appears not to be in a hurry. Sitting inside his large office chamber, with beautiful colonial-era furniture, Prof. Hasan, the new director general of the National Archives of India (NAI), looks as carefree as a retired man.

The 61-year-old academic, author of several books on Indian history, talks in a singsong voice; he laughs easily and peppers his conversation with amusing Urdu couplets. Soon, however, he comes to the point. “I want the Archives to be like London’s British Library, which is wonderful in terms of collection, conservation, preservation and, most importantly, accessibility."

As the storehouse of the non-current records of the Indian government, the NAI, situated on Janpath close to India Gate, has thousands of rare old books, documents and lithographs piled up on various floors. While researching here for his book The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty (Delhi 1857), author William Dalrymple discovered previously unexamined manuscripts that present the Indian perspective on the 1857 mutiny. “All the Urdu research for the book was done there," says Dalrymple. “The archive contains the biggest and fullest colonial archive in India."

Unfortunately, the Archives pulls in only the most dogged of history buffs.

Prof. Hasan wants the place to be more attractive so that non-scholars can freely come in, browse through the shelves, dig into boxes filled with British-era confidential documents, read letters written 200 years ago, roll out long farmans (royal decrees) of Mughal kings and feel the touch of fourth century Sanskrit manuscripts printed on animal-skin parchments. It is a tough undertaking with the NAI’s annual budget, which is Rs21 crore.

Spotlight: Prof. Hasan was the vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia before he joined the Archives. Priyanka Parashar / Mint

“The new job is proving to be more tiresome than being a university’s VC. There is so much to be done," he says, while sending off an email on his sleek Sony Vaio laptop. Every inch of his desk is covered with paperback books and files, including a glossy booklet, A Tool for Assessing Damage in Old Books. “We’re publishing papers of Sarojini Naidu and Dadabhai Naoroji," the professor says, tapping on a stapled sheaf of papers titled Dadabhai Naoroji Papers. “We’ll also release a descriptive catalogue of our Persian manuscripts."

The professor reaches the Archives daily at 8.45am sharp. If the lift takes too long, he climbs the 50-odd steps of this colonial-era edifice (the Archives has a modern annexe building too), which earlier served as a mint, and walks through an arched corridor before reaching his chamber. Every Tuesday, he conducts a meeting with his five deputies in which they review the previous week.

As we walk towards the conservation section, Prof. Hasan says: “The greatest damage you can do to any institution is to leave it headless. When I came here, there was lack of direction, absence of leadership and ad hocism was the order of the day. People here are not accustomed to working."

As a 20-something research scholar in the 1970s, Prof. Hasan would come to the Archives on his Java motorcycle. “Then, in terms of facilities, (the) Archives was very poor. The research room had no air conditioner. There was no proper canteen and I lived on omelettes, untoasted bread and lukewarm tea."

Over the years, the research room has been made bigger, the spaces are more clearly defined, and there is a remarkable improvement in Xeroxing facilities, something very crucial for researchers.

As we enter a hall in the conservation section, the murmur of the staff suddenly stops. They look busy, binding and stitching old volumes of manuscripts and books. “It’s a beautiful 1925-era building but was not being looked after. The flooring was unpolished, the fittings were inferior, and a lot of structure had come up that violated the sanctity of this place, which we are now demolishing," says Prof. Hasan.

He does not want it to look like a dusty old place with unhelpful staff members, he tells me over bites of his home-cooked lunch of aloo palak.

The bigger challenge is to make the past accessible to the new generation. “I want to make it a paradise for historians where they can not only consult records, but also exchange their research. Also, the collection has to be made available in print to an audience outside the scholarly community. We are also organizing exhibitions and conferences," Prof. Hasan says.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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