Archives, impersonal and official, come to life thanks to new technology and the efforts of a few dedicated men and women
Chinmayi Shalya | 18 Oct, 2014
Archives, impersonal and official, come to life thanks to new technology and the efforts of a few dedicated men and women
There is something impersonal about the notion of archives. Huge halls housing wall to wall cabinets, housing bound musty pages of history, pin drop silence, punctured by occasional coughs or whispers from nerdy scholars to sleepy staff or opening and shutting of catalogue boxes. Depending on your relationship with the college or public libraries, you can add more elements to the dreary world of records of winners and losers. But archives would turn into a live wire, a history that can be seen through various eyes if you weave some memory and stories from ordinary lives into them. Like a photograph from your grandmother’s childhood opening a direct route to a world far and lost when you suddenly notice the mud toys she played with in the picture.
Telling stories of people through old photographs, creating videos where individuals narrate their own lives and history, or digging up and preserving things that are slipping into oblivion unnoticed is a task many individuals across the country have now taken upon themselves. These are New-Age archivists, armed with technology and serviced by the Internet, narrating big shifts of time and history through people who have lived through them. Theirs is more than the Kunderasque struggle of memory against forgetting. It is also the urge to set history free from the confines of space and format. To create living microcosms of the macrocosmic history we are used to.
In her home cum studio in Mumbai, photographer and archivist Anusha Yadav explains why these microcosms are so crucial. “Historical consequences touch several lives, but everyone is affected differently by them. This is why personal accounts are important,” she says. Yadav became an archiver of memories in 2010 when she started the Indian Memory Project . Leafing though old family albums, it struck her that all old photographs were like stories of the past floating in the present; each photograph revealing something about its time in the way people dressed, the way they sat, the props used. This understanding gave birth to the project which now is an outlet for many to share their bits of history.
Set to be replicated in six other countries, the project has photographs at its core. Personal histories are narrated through photographs from the pre-digital era. With 145 contributions from across the globe, the archives boasts of a collection of rare and enlightening stories from an era gone by. Take, for instance, a recent contribution by Rakesh Anand Bakshi, son of Hindi film lyricist Anand Bakshi. The sepia tinted photograph taken in Rawalpindi in 1935, shows Anand as a child with his parents and is one of the few he had managed to save when the family fled from Pakistan with only a couple of hours to gather their belongings. The post also speaks about Anand’s struggles and journey till he got his very first break as a song writer.
There is a photo of Veena Sajnani, winner of Miss Indian pageant in 1970, contributed by her niece Smita and written in first person by Veena herself, from Bangalore. It has Veena posing for the pageant’s swimsuit shoot. The post recalls how pageants were hosted three decades ago and how Veena, clad in an emerald green chiffon saree with gold work, won the title defeating actor Zeenat Aman, who was a co-participant.
“The process of curating the archives has been enlightening. I was surprised to see that we have so many kinds of DNAs; or how people process grief differently; while partition brought misery for many, for some it was also an opportunity; or how a generation in 1947 would have missed out on two years of education as schools and colleges were shut for that duration,” says Yadav. Photographs, for her, remain crucial to history and memory.
Archivists and historians believe that technology has helped collect individual pasts that can be preserved and shared more easily. When all that one needs is to log in and access the archive, the past doesn't stay distant.
Mridula Mukherjee, Professor of modern Indian history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), feels that it is the digital part of archiving that is most exciting. “For instance, a young student from Guntur, would no longer need to travel to access archives. Imagine the number of people who would be able to use these archives! The more diversity there is, the greater will be the resources for anyone who wants to know,” she says.
Mukherjee says that even the so-called government archives have assimilated personal papers and letters of eminent personalities. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, of which she had been a director, is one of the biggest nonofficial archives in the country. But they exist in a physical space. She admits that a lot needs to be done to archive different things and making them accessible to people, a sentiment that echoes with archivist Vikram Sampath.
While travelling through Europe to research on early gramophone recordings of Indian music, author and archivist Vikram Sampath saw that many countries had a national repository of music or sounds- Phonogram Archive and Lautarchiv in Berlin and the British Library in London being two of the most inspiring—a need which wasn't recognised in India.
“In Berlin, there were recordings of Indian prisoners of war during World War I. They gave importance to music as well as voices from the past,” recalls Vikram. This is when he decided to salvage the gramophone recordings of Indian musicians. He created the Archive of Indian Music (AIM) in 2013.
In its first six months only,the website got about 5 lakh hits. Apart from willing trustees who contributed to the archive, Sampath’s treasure trove were chor bazaars and scrap dealers across the country. He found a 1926 gramophone recording of the then 10 year old Carnatic vocalist MS Subbalakshmi in a chor bazaar in Chennai; Gauhar Jaan, an early 20th century Indian singer’s first gramophone record from1902 was found in Kolkata’s chor bazaar. “People inherited these records but didn’t know what to do with them. They sold them as scarp. Not knowing how to digitise them well, many records are still cleaned with shoe polish or coconut oil which spoil them further,” Sampath says.
The archives now boasts of 15,000 gramophone recordings of about 1,000 musicians across genres of music, all dating back to the pre-1940 era. Rare records of female musicians like Malka Jaan of Agra, Zohra Bai of Agra, Janki Bai of Allahabad,Sundarabai of Pune, Acchan Bai of Bombay, are homed at AIM.“When recording came to India, it was women who embraced the technology first,” says Vikram.
Archives infused with nostalgia and memory does democratise the way we look at history. It gives us true faces and emotions. But does archiving only pertains to the past? Notionally, yes. But it encompasses the present, too- something that you see dying, or being left behind in a world that is changing faster than it did a decade ago. (See how many times you have upgraded your phone in the last 10 years; or the gap between transition from an audio cassette to cds and dvds and now itunes).
Paromita Vohra, documentary filmmaker and writer, believes that the institutional meaning of archives has changed. She has been writing about her neighbourhood of Andheri East, a suburb in Mumbai, to archive whats left of the old and the changes that are sweeping through it. “There are neighbourhood archives, people writing about and photographing the changes in their lives and the city,” says Vohra.
Capturing the present as it passes through our hands are projects like the People’s Archives of Rural India (PARI) and the Public Access Digital Media Archive (pad.ma). PARI is documenting the lives and stories of people from rural India.
Brainchild of eminent journalist and expert on agrarian crisis, P.Sainath, PARI is set for an online launch in December with hundreds of photographs and 20 videos covering stories of people across rural India. The archives own about 8,000-10,000 black and white images and countless stories from the margins by Sainath and scores of contributors. The films are subtitled in multiple languages and keeping true to its name, the archives gives the first credit in its films to the subject who is telling the story.
Sainath likes to call PARI an archive which will never be complete as voices from the rural corners would keep flowing in. Its thrust is to document everyday lives of people, and through them the realities and changes in rural India. “There is much that is brilliant and beautiful,but also things that are barbaric and regressive in rural India. The transformation in the countryside is strengthening the latter,” Sainath explains. This change is evident in the fact that the finest schools of weaving, pottery, crafts, oral literature etc are now disintegrating, but caste structures, for instance, are getting strengthened.
One of the films in the archive tells the story of four families from Narasingapettai near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu still making the Nadaswaram, an instrument from the Carnatic music tradition. This craft is dying as new generations are switching to more lucrative professions considering that artisans make a petty Rs 5,000, only one fourth of it is their profit per instrument.They can, at best, make three or four in a month.
Another inspiring film is about a 21-year old from a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, who is perhaps the only male to have mastered advanced levels of Bharatnatyam and three centuries old folk dances of region- Oyilaatam, Thappaatam and Karagattam. These films are among many that record livelihoods, traditions and people’s battles with change and forces of power. Sainath has also digitised his photo exhibition on women from rural India with an audio commentary for the archives.
There is an an attempt to photograph faces, capture all spoken tongues and rural occupations in the country. “It will be a living textbook for students and a source of rare and complex material for researchers. The website is curated but anyone can contribute to it.” Sainath explains.
A documentary filmmaker creates her\his film from hours of footage that is shot. What is not used in the film isn’t junk, but equally valuable footage which might, over the time, benefit someone else, This is one of the driving ideas behind pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive), which,in its own words, is an online archives of densely annotated video material.
pad.ma was initiated in 2008 by three separate bodies with confluent ideology- CAMP (Critical Art and Media Practices), an artists studio in Bombay that combines film and video, installation, software, open-access archives and public programming with technology, 0x2620.org, a Berlin based duo who create open-source internet platforms to enable knowledge commons and Alternative Law Forum, a Bangalore based body on alternative lawyering which focuses on knowledge sharing.
On the website are finely delineated segments of videos ranging from Kashmir, Gujarat riots, LGBT, Women’s issues to oral histories, housing rights, contemporary art and dance. Contributions come from filmmakers from various corners of the country. Each video is annotated and transcribed. Each project has a contrail of interesting stories.
For instance, pad.ma’s Afghan Film project was born when Afghan filmmaker Mariam Ghani told the team that contrary to the popular assumption that Taliban has destroyed most of the film archives in Kabul during civil war years, all negatives were still intact at "Afghan Films,” the state’s film commissioning body. “A team of technicians and filmmakers went to Kabul helped repair their telecine machine and digitised 100 reels, along with commentary and analysis by staffers at Afghan Films,” recollects Shaina Anand, one of the co-founders of Pad.ma.
The annotations for videos are often done by the members or researchers by taking copious notes from conversations with those associated with the videos.
“Many people today are video documenting stories from different walks of life. We archive them and set them free for researchers, students, academic referencing,” says Anand. “The archives is open to interpretation by the user,” she adds. The footage of Ship of Theseus is set to go online on Pad.ma, and it already has the footage of all Radia tapes and and an independent section of all sting operations in India.
The format and software is now being replicated in Turkey and Egypt. In 2013, archives branched out to create Indiancine.ma, a separate online wing on Indian films based on film researcher Ashish Rajadhayaksh's Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema.
While most contemporary archives focus on making information available online, there are more conservative archivists who believe that not all content should be offered online. Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) is an older initiative (dating back to 1988) which is only partially online.
Founded by writer and feminist researcher, CS Lakshmi, along with academics in Women's Studies, Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishna Raj, SPARROW started with documenting women, their life, personal spaces, achievements through oral history, print and visual material. It now has an array of books and journals along with visual material including print visuals, photographs from private albums, film posters, films etc. The women SPARROW focusses on are not achievers in the conventional sense but those who are doing path-breaking work and changing, if not the world, their own lives.
“There was a time when women’s issues were referred to as ‘problems,” says Lakshmi. “We tried to document women as they existed in their space and negotiated the world around them,” she adds. SPARROWs achievement lies in documenting stories of women from all walks of life, through personal interviews and workshops. In 1997, they translated into English two of Dalit writer Urmila Pawar’s stories and later even printed a booklet on her life. The archives requested the family of Maya Kamat, the first and only female political cartoonist in the country, to give some of her work for the archives. The family donated 8,000 cartoons which are now part of the archives.
Unlike others, however, Lakshmi doesn't believe in sharing the entire archives online. “People can have an idea through the website and those interested enough can visit it in Mumbai,” says Lakshmi. She believes that only information can be shared online, but not knowledge. Other contemporary archivists disagree. Sampath says it is time to stop hoarding the information and let it flow. Anand believes everything should be open sourced.
However, there can't be any disagreement that the idea of a monolithic archives has changed forever. Like Vohra notes, “Time is not linear and events, processes don't exist in finite boxes of past and present. History is constantly being made or created from politics, personal stories, social developments which intertwine. Existing together, both official and individual archives will give us a more contoured history of our times."