For many visitors to India today, history is a living, pulsating thing spilt in dazzling neon colours on its streets, enmeshed in wires above and a milieu of humanity below. But if we question the recording of this history, ask any researcher worth his/her salt and you will hear about the screaming mess that Indian archives are.
India actually had a great tradition of archiving. Family trees stretching back three centuries used to be preserved by savants. Oral epics would be transferred, literally, by word of mouth. There were kings who built libraries, and our freedom fighters diligently maintained jail diaries. And all this in a time when there were less than half as many Indians in the world as there are today.
But let’s not blame the government for its lacklustre archival skills; after all it has more pressing issues such as bans to impose and various permutations and combinations of currency designs to experiment with.
Luckily, some of us have taken the matter in our own hands and decided to give the busy-busy state a break. We found five grassroots level efforts archiving five aspects of India, amongst the many that would go completely unrecorded if not for the independent archives that are attempting to preserve them. And they’re doing a brilliant job at it. Read on…
People’s Archive of Rural India records the ‘everyday lives of everyday people’, and it does so in what they rightly call the world’s “most diverse and complex countryside”. It has been set up by none other than the journalist P. Sainath, well known (amongst other things) for Everybody Loves a Good Draught. This project is entirely volunteer-run and has won multiple awards and recognition for its excellent work in rural journalism.
1947 Partition Archive
There is something very disturbing about the fact that the partition of a subcontinent and the ensuing mass migration – the largest in human history – has absolutely no archive to its name. Almost as if in a conscious attempt to wipe out every trace of the ugly injustice that had befallen millions. This is why the Berkeley-based 1947 Partition Archive’s efforts to document the oral histories of Partition survivors have received so many laurels in the short time it has been around. Help them achieve this faster by becoming a Story Scholar yourself.
The Travelling Archive
On a lighter note(s), it has been 13 years since singer-writer-researcher Moushumi Bhowmick and audiographer Sukanta Majumdar began travelling around Bengal and recording the songs and conversations along the way. Not only that, this painstakingly documented archive of field recordings that does justice to Bengal’s folk music traditions is shared through the three albums they have brought out as well as on their website.
The Public Access Digital Media Archive is yet another unique initiative that questions and breaks the boundaries that distinguish copyright from copyleft. It is an open, online archive of video material (not finished films but plenty documentary footage) that can be searched, viewed and downloaded for non-commercial usage. Highly specialised, much appreciated.
India Photo Archive
The India Photo Archive Foundation was set up by commercial photographer Aditya Arya for the altogether uncommercial reason of digitising and preserving photographic archives. Too much of our visual history is at risk in delicate negatives, transparencies and prints such as family albums, and this particular archive will hopefully manage to save some of it.