BENGALURU: Archives are important. Something that we call ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. But what if the giants were lost? Could we still stand as tall? Such is the case with Indian science in the new millennium, as much of the contribution of Indian scientists in the 20th century was never properly documented. Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director of the Science Gallery, Bengaluru, had the experience of realising this back when she was working on her doctoral thesis.
“During that time, I was looking for materials about the beginnings of experimental nuclear physics in India. I had a very hard time finding the information. Some of my peers who were working on American or European history, spent a lot of time reading secondary materials. Then they would go to the archives for two months and eventually write their thesis over a year.
But people like us, who were working on projects surrounding countries like India, Ghana or Nigeria, spent a couple of years just collecting material,” says Phalkey. In 2014, when Phalkey was working with the Science Museum in London, she decided to organise a large ‘India’ exhibition. But since there was very little information about science in post-Independent India and no archives to go to, they had to scrap the project. This led to the inception of Re: Collect India, a citizen archivist project that aims to collect information regarding the contribution of Indian scientists after 1947 and create an archive.
The creators of the archive hope it would be tremendously useful to anyone in the future, including anybody who wishes to research India’s scientific history and maybe even organise a blockbuster exhibition, the kind that Phalkey had failed to do in 2014. “The idea is to crowdsource volunteers to take oral histories of innovation and capture the stories of science and technology. My role was to come in and bring the project together into a program that we could run live.
We worked to develop specific handbooks, which would train the volunteers. My role was to design and operationalise the whole project,” says programme manager Madhushree Kamak, who joined the Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) team in 2018. If you look at the history of science in the last century, you’ll notice it shares a largely Western narrative. Not much work outside of the West, especially from India, gets the limelight. Here is where this project can change things.
“This project is important because not many have worked on it before. Only a few other historians have investigated the history of Indian science. And since not much work has been done in the past, the global narrative of scientific history is naturally skewed towards a predominantly Western perspective,” says Ashank Chandapillai, a sociology and modern history graduate who joined the SGB team this year as a programme associate.
Phalkey believes the primary thing we can do to promote the work of Indian scientists is by writing stories. “By stories, I mean robust histories, but also stories for the public domain. In this country, we don’t have a single institution that grants degrees in the history of science. The only journal for the history of science is run by the Indian National Science Academy and it’s run by scientists. Besides, in academia, we also need these stories in the public domain in various forms, like films, for example,” concludes Phalkey.
How India can promote its scientific history
- Degrees in the history of science by established institutions
- A proper professional society for science history
- A professional journal on the national scale
- More storytelling, films and public debates