Shelf Lives

We’re not paying enough attention to archives and archival practices By Basav Biradar

In the early 20th century, Albert Kahn, French banker and philanthropist, was concerned that certain ways of living would vanish due to rapid industralisation, and he wanted to preserve the memory of the world as it was at the time. He decided to create the “Archives of the Planet'' by sending photographers and cinematographers across the world to make a visual record of the lives of ordinary people. By the time the project was terminated after 22 years, they had covered over 50 countries and created more than 72,000 color photographs (autochromes) and 183,000 metres of film. Today, this huge collection is available in the Albert Kahn Museum in a suburb of Paris. Most importantly, in 2019, the museum digitised all the photographs and made them available on their website for public use. Kahn’s project is a great example of the immense possibilities of what an archive can achieve when managed well.

In the Indian context, record keeping and archiving existed in some form or the other in the private lives of ordinary people (family recordkeepers) and in royal courts. But the idea of a public archive as we know it today was ushered in by British rule. The first such emerged in the 18th century, from the colonial interest in understanding “oriental” knowledge: the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. By the time India attained independence, there were several public archives across the country housing official documents and records spanning centuries.

Today, in addition to the National Archives of India (NAI) with its 40 kms of shelves, we have archives at state level plus those of several public institutions such as the Asiatic Society, housing official files, books, rare manuscripts, microfilms, audio visual recordings, glass negatives and maps, dating back centuries. But, unlike Kahn’s archives, our official archives are in a pitiful state and mired in bureaucracy. Nominally public, access is limited to university-affiliated scholars or independent researchers with official permission. To add to the woes of lay enthusiasts, these archives have been slow to adopt digital technology. If these archives increase accessibility, adopt modern preservation methods, digitise documents and engage meaningfully with the general public, it will help common citizens also to understand the importance of archives. A silver lining in the imminent moving of the NAI to a new building — to make way for the central vista project — with all the attendant risk to its collection, is the hope that the new premises will have modern preservation facilities.

Although state archives can help us study and understand the political and administrative history of our nation, they do not preserve the stories of ordinary people. Community-built archives strive to fill this gap, helping preserve collective memories, often challenging established methods of historical documentation.

The Remember Bhopal Museum, created by survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy with activists and artists, collected interviews, photographs, and stories of impacted individuals and families, court documents, press reports and similar material, all now hosted in a small independent house. The 1947 Partition Archive is a huge oral history project, with over 9,500 witnesses recorded with the help of volunteers. QAMRA (Queer Archive for Memory, Reflection and Activism) is another recent community project, a multimedia archive that preserves and exhibit stories of people and communities marginalised on the basis of gender and sexuality, and act as a resource base for those working on queer rights activism and advocacy. The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) which uses journalism — reportage, video, social media — to document the lives and livelihoods of people in rural India and then makes it accessible to anyone on their website.

Community-built archives, for the most part, are open to collaborations with institutions and are welcoming of scholars and researchers; they are also very invested in active engagement with the public and in dissemination of knowledge housed in their archives.

Some companies and institutions — for example, Wipro, IIM Ahmedabad — have started building their own archives; a much-needed step, an example worth emulating to preserve the history of post-independence institutions. There is an urgent need to enable the study of our PSUs by setting up similar archives.

Arts and crafts are probably the most under-represented sector in Indian archives.

Part of our cinematic heritage has been preserved in the National Film Archives of India and the Films Division archives, but access to them is difficult; and their restoration and preservation facilities need immediate upgradation.

Most art forms are archived either through non-profit institutions or as part of scattered private or government-owned collections. Amongst the privately owned, Alkazi Theatre Archives, Archive of Indian Music, Alkazi Collection of Photography, Natarang Pratishthan (a theatre archive) are examples of reasonably managed collections, but many others require attention to preservation methods. And there are notable gaps: for instance, we do not yet have comprehensive theatre or classical music archives. Countless precious hours of classical music and other original programming played on state-owned radio and television was either never recorded or recordings have not been preserved competently.

One major issue — a cause, arguably, of the inconsistencies in the setup and management of archives in India — is the dearth of qualified professionals in the field of archival and preservation. There is a need for graduate courses which teach the latest methods and techniques in preservation of all types of media in addition to archival studies. Currently, to study these subjects, students have to enrol in expensive programs in universities abroad.

Technical skills apart, individuals or organisations interested in building an archive should focus on the following:

• Identify the need for a certain archive. For example : visual archive of a city; archive of pandemic experiences; archive of a particular art/craft form etc.).

• Collect material objectively. The golden rule should be every material lost is a piece of our cultural history lost.

• Implement innovative ways of disseminating the information from your archive, invite researchers and enthusiasts to engage with your archive and interpret the material.

• To encourage the creation of more archives, cultural organisations and forums should host symposiums, conferences and workshops to encourage the exchange of ideas and to document learnings and best practices from across the country.