Past Masters: How books and archives protect familial legacy and heritage

Conservators of personal history are protecting familial legacy through bespoke books, archives, legacy food projects, heritage textiles and curated conversations.
Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra (Photo| Special Arrangement)
Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra (Photo| Special Arrangement)

Professor Ruchi Ram Sahni from Lahore lived an interesting life in the waning years of the British Empire. As one of few English-educated Punjabis of his generation, Sahni was a polyglot who could read and write Persian, Pashto, English, Gurmukhi and Hindi.

He worked on radioactivity in Nobel Laureate Sir Ernest Rutherford's laboratory in Manchester, UK, and strongly advocated science education for the masses, as well as social and religious reforms. His varied interests led him to compile 15 detailed volumes called The History of My Own Times, which unfortunately were misplaced after his death in 1948.

When his great-granddaughter, sociologist Dr Neera Burra, was tasked with editing his autobiography, she made it her mission to locate these missing documents. Her search took her to Lahore, London and the US, but finally she found several volumes of his writings in the Chandigarh archives.

She also relied on son Arudra, an academic, for help with internet research, the testimony of long-lost relatives from around the world, papers from the India Office Library in London, digital archives of The Tribune newspaper, which he had been a trustee of, and the Punjab Legislative Assembly debates which he attended as an MLA.

This extensive eight-year-long project resulted in the book A Memoir of Pre-Partition Punjab: Ruchi Ram Sahni 1863-1948. "I think more and more people are beginning to write down family stories. Although one has never taken family stories seriously before, there is motivation when one reads someone else's family stories and sees how similar those stories are with one's own," explains Burra.

"People of my generation and also the younger generation have realised the value of these family events and how important they are even for historians. The flavour you get from these books is quite different from what you get in history books. The same events described by English historians of the time and those described in autobiographical events are quite different," he added.

Social media made it easy to document our lives, and the pandemic gave people time to reflect on what is truly important to them. While some enterprising individuals take this task of preservation in their own hands, many organisations offer it as a bespoke service, and yet others do it as a public service. The one thing in common? They all document the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

1947 Partition Archive

Dr Guneeta Singh Bhalla founded the 1947 Partition Archive in 2011, when she realised that the partition of India was becoming a distant memory for most people. By documenting the oral histories of its survivors, she hoped to revive the memory of this traumatic event in people's consciousness.

Twelve years on, this global organisation has recorded nearly 10,000 partition survivor stories, succeeding in its goal of creating meaningful conversations on the subject of the Partition. She believes the pandemic led to an increased awareness and hence interest in the documentation of oral history in general, which further allowed the organisation’s work to gain traction.

Of the numerous projects they are currently involved in, a 'Reconnect App' to help people find places and people left behind at the time of Partition, as well as its first physical memorial project (an immersive experience quite distinct from a typical museum), are the most anticipated.

They are also working on mass-posting their documented oral histories globally. "The key to talking about trauma is not to be afraid of it - it's actually a cathartic process for people to be able to express their feelings," she says.

Family Fables Company

"I wish I had asked my grandparents and parents more about their lives," is a common regret for many. Family Fables Company, a bespoke publishing business, attempts to address this by helping individuals, families and institutions document their personal stories. 

Recording her grandmother's life encouraged founder Samrata Salwan Diwan to launch this venture. Her team of oral historians, researchers and designers meticulously interview family members across the globe and rummage through their documented memories to create keepsake books.

There was a significant increase in inquiries during the pandemic from people looking to preserve their heritage in uncertain times. A recent project was the memoir of Group Captain Himmat Singh Ravubha Gohel to mark his centenary.

Based on detailed logbooks, hand-written notes, newspaper clippings and photos, 'Flights of Valour' pans his 30-year career, where he flew with the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces across Japan and Burma during World War II, airlifted troops and casualties in the 1947-48 Kashmir Operation, and led the nation’s first Republic Day flypast in 1950.

"There is a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that life reflection is a powerful medicine for senior citizens. The chance to tell their stories improves cognition, reduces depression, and  enhances behavioural functioning," Diwan says.

Prerna Sood

Architect Prerna Sood knew that recording her maternal grandmother's extraordinary culinary skills would be the most fitting tribute for her 90th birthday.

She did this by compiling nearly 100 recipes of savoury and sweet dishes, chutneys, pickles, and squashes, made in the unique style her nani was famous for amongst family and friends. A keen cook herself, the project was of great interest to Sood, who enjoyed learning recipes passed down from ancestors based on traditional knowhow and methodology.

Over a period of three years, she documented recipes every time she visited her grandmother. She then recreated each one to taste and photograph. With a background in design, both aesthetics and content were equally important to her for the final product.

The extra time afforded by the pandemic sped up the process and allowed her to make two separate books - one for recipes and the other containing special messages from family and friends. "Seeing my grandmother’s expression as she flipped through the book on her special day was so rewarding. I was only preserving her culinary legacy but the documentation had a deeper meaning for her," Prerna says.

Museum of Material Memory

While working on her book on preserving the material artefacts refugees carried across the border at Partition, oral historian Aanchal Malhotra became aware of the need for a digital archive to preserve material history.

This led her to jointly launch the Museum of Material Memory in 2017, with her friend Navdha Malhotra who is equally interested in the preservation of aged artefacts. Through their website and socials, they share stories and pictures of heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity that trace family history and social ethnography.

Each post uses storytelling to reveal generational narratives about the tradition, culture, customs, conventions, habits, language, society, geography and history of this vast and diverse subcontinent. The founders share that the pandemic prompted a shift in the way people think and perceive life, leading to an increase in the number of people sending in stories and the quality of storytelling.

An upcoming project they are particularly excited about is 'With Love Madras', which documents select pieces of writing and photography celebrating Madras. The author of bestselling book Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory, Aanchal got more time during the pandemic to work on her upcoming book on the generational impact of Partition, set for release in 2022.

Her unique methodology helps bridge generational gaps, as she finds that members of the third or fourth generation of Partition-affected families are more engaged with the landscape their grandparents left behind, when they encounter an object from that landscape.

"Material history is a more tactile and gentler way to enter what may remain a traumatic historic landscape. An object is a democratic tool for remembrance that surpasses geographic boundaries, as in the case of erstwhile British India," she says.

"By documenting the personal histories embedded within heirlooms and objects, we can preserve myriad cultures, traditions, languages, and religions across the subcontinent for present and future generations, while transcending physical borders," she adds.  

Lt Col (Retd) Raja R Chandra

As he approached the grand age of 90, Lt Col Chandra felt a strong desire to document his own life while memory served him well. Through an illustrious career that spanned 21 years in the Indian Army, the highlight of which was combat against Pakistan in 1965; to his early retirement from the army to pursue an MBA and subsequently a teaching position at the prestigious Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi University; and finally setting up a lucrative business manufacturing hand brakes - Lt Col Chandra has seen it all.

The pandemic forced him to leave India to join his son - a doctor practicing in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the US. This gave him both the time and the drive to write his memoirs, which have now been published by the Family Fables Company.

The Valiant Soldier: Life and Reflections (pic, right) talks about major historical events from his perspective, and also offers a candid look at his personal life. The book can be purchased on Amazon and plans are afoot to have copies sent to all army libraries around the country. "I had to write this book myself because it was my own story," he says.

The NaNima Project

During the first lockdown, entrepreneur Aditi Bharadwaj discovered her maternal grandmother’s diary, where she had meticulously noted exotic recipes to entertain the British colleagues of her army officer husband.

Keen to share this wealth of knowledge, Bharadwaj added her mother's recipes and some of her own, and launched her social media pages titled @thenanimaproject. The pandemic was the biggest catalyst for this 'happiness project' because this period highlighted what was most important in life - family and food.

With lockdowns, people were spending more time in the kitchen and often had to be creative with whatever was available. This made them look for solutions in their family's traditional recipes.

Through frequent Instagram Live sessions with renowned chefs and members of royal families, and by sharing pictures, stories and recipes, Bharadwaj seeks to archive and share the wonders of Indian family kitchens with the world - not just recipes but also home remedies for ailments, traditional treatments for skin and hair and tips to be frugal when times are tough.

"I aim to preserve the wisdom that resides with the women of the family, so I can pass it on to my daughter and inspire others to do the same," says Aditi Bharadwaj

Cornucopia Concepts

Unable to part with the trunk full of clothes associated with their memories of childhood, teens and early twenties, sisters Ayesha and Manisha Desai decided to cut them up and make a bright, colourful patchwork quilt instead.

Soon, family members and friends began asking them to do the same, and they launched Cornucopia Concepts in 2017, where old clothes are repurposed into quilts, cushion covers and more. The idea is to encourage people to rethink consumption patterns while providing a sustainable way to preserve memories.

Bereavement quilts made from clothes of dear departed ones became popular during the pandemic as people lost family members and attempted to fill the sudden vacuum created with their untimely loss. Their customised message quilts are a new service gaining traction, such as one commissioned by the family to record 75 things about a person for their 75th birthday.

"Family history, heirlooms passed on from generation to generation constitute the fabric of our present. We are a culmination of all those before us, their memories, their experiences - whether it is a grandmother’s soft cotton sari or a hand-embroidered border saved for decades, each piece has a story that needs to be preserved and told," says Ayesha and Manisha Desai

Ganga Jamuni Foundation

Educator Shagufta Siddhi embarked on an alternate career in 2019. She launched the Ganga Jamuni Foundation to digitally archive and document the cultural and traditional practices of the Indo-Gangetic plains that are slowly dying out due to urbanisation and globalisation.

By recording oral histories and visiting rural and urban spaces, she seeks to preserve the intangible heritage of this region, including its art, music, traditional foods, festivals, rituals, textiles, artistic traditions, and historic buildings.

Siddhi invites renowned authors, historians, anthropologists, and cultural theorists to talk about these subjects on the foundation's social media pages, through live sessions on Clubhouse, Facebook and YouTube, and a few on-ground events.

The pandemic boosted their work as more people felt the desire to hold on to their roots. A recent project that garnered attention was her Instagram documentation of women from the Ottoman Empire who married and settled in India in the last century - an apt example of the cultural melting pot India has always been.

"This information will be a distinguishing feature for future generations to define their identity. The material will help people understand their cultural background and enable them to see how different communities coexisted in a symbiotic manner," says Shagufta Siddhi

Deepak Gupta

Keen to record his family history, Deepak Gupta asked his father to pen down his life story 15 years ago, before he passed on. Though these notes remained with him, Gupta  picked up the project in earnest last year, by asking his mother to do the same. His research even led him to a cottage in Manali where his father's family took refuge during and immediately after Partition.

Gupta believes the pandemic gave him both time and momentum for this project. The sudden demise of an uncle whose answers were awaited further highlighted the urgency. Gupta hopes that his children, settled in the US, who have no knowledge of their ancestry and heritage, will benefit from reading the coffee table book about his family, currently being published by Family Fables Company. A few of his father’s documented stories have been sent to the Partition Museum in Amritsar, and he is keen to contribute more portions of the book when it comes out.

"The pandemic as well as having cancer have taught me that life is so unpredictable. We should preserve everything we possibly can and as fast as we can, otherwise it can be lost momentarily," says Gupta.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express