Keeping time: The past as a map to comprehend who we're & where we're heading
Equipped with ever-evolving technology and the magic tool of social media, archiving is becoming a more diverse and accessible process to preserve the past
Among the many things that were passed on to Madurai resident, Shrikumar Arjunan from his mother was a red Burmese lacquerware box. Reminiscent of the Kashmiri craft of papier mache, the over 80-year-old cylindrical case, in red and black with etchings in strokes of yellow and green, originally belonged to his grandmother, who lived in a small town called Pegu, about 100 km from the capital city of Rangoon in Burma (now Myanmar).
“Each time I see the box, I think of my grandmother and the stories she would recall from her childhood, for her family was among the many Tamils who migrated to Burma in the late 1800s and remained there for generations,” writes Arjuna in his entry featured in the Museum of Material Memory, a digital repository of the material culture of the subcontinent.
The museum is part of a growing number of spaces, online and offline, which have taken it upon themselves to archive personal histories. The story of Arjunan’s Burmese box is an example of how an inconspicuous object in the corner of one’s home is able to speak to an entire community.
The indispensability of keeping records also came through at a recent exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art on how a generation of citizen-artists—Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, Jyoti Bhatt and Vivan Sundaram—shaped the landscape of art in post-Independence India.
What made the show extraordinary, however, was the archival material— photographs, documents, letters exchanged between the artists, media coverage of exhibitions from the time these artists were starting out—alongside the art, giving viewers an inroad into the country’s collective past by making this surreal part of history tangible.
American Historian David McCullough said, “History is who we are and why we are the way we are”, and a significant way to map it is to look through the lens of art, literature and architecture, and in this expedition, archivists play captain. They are, literally, the keepers of culture.
The term archiving does not, however, throw up an enticing image. Cumbersome and tedious, it is often looked at as a back-end job. It is painstaking, no doubt, and is about keeping records, but if the modern-day cultural archivists are to be believed, it is anything but mechanical. Like with everything else, the process has evolved and diversified with the times.
Despite the rich trove of heritage India boasts of, there weren’t too many spaces—except the government records—until recently that took the initiative of cataloguing it. Pramod Kumar KG and Deepthi Sasidharan attempted to fill the void by co-founding the archiving consulting company, Eka Cultural Resources and Research, in 2009.
“One of the ways to understand who we are and where we are going is to be able to look into our past, and for this, we need to be able to see the past. What exists currently is possibly a lot of monuments and odd objects. To have a sense of the context of these objects, however, one needs to know how they were used, by whom and made by whom. So, recording and documenting this was essential,” says Kumar.
Over the years, there have been more additions to the list of archiving institutions such as Past Perfect in Mumbai and the Bengaluru-based non-profit Museum of Art and Photography (MAP). Eka and Past Perfect identify as consulting companies that help manage and organise the cultural resources and collections of institutions and individuals.
With the ultimate aim of preservation of the past, they also offer services such as collections management, acquisitions and reacquisitions, conservation assessment and intervention, storage planning, and risk assessment, alongside curatorial advice, research and outreach.
TIES THAT BIND
The significance of archival material goes beyond keeping records for the sake of preservation. It serves as a testimony of a shared past of a family, community, nation or even the human race.
Online archives such as the Indian Memory Project, established in 2010 by Anusha Yadav, or the more recent Museum of Material Memory, by Navdha Malhotra and Aanchal Malhotra, rely on people’s recollections and reminiscences of their personal pasts triggered by found objects—photographs, utensils, clothing, heirlooms and everything else—to trace the history of the subcontinent.
Aanchal stumbled upon the idea for the museum while researching for her book, Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided. “People would get in touch with me from across the subcontinent to tell me about an object they have, and to ask if it was of any significance. The idea of people being interested, a younger lot especially, in objects of age, seemed like an untapped resource for us to understand the material culture,” says the printmaker.
A striking entry in the digital repository, which currently features a total of 141 stories, is that of the ‘Sindhi Nath of Lakshmibai Chhabria’, in which Jyoti Chhabria writes about her grandmother’s nose ring (a symbol of matrimony), recreated from the memories of her father, and how the jewel-and-pearl-studded ornament made its way from Shikarpur in Sindh to Bombay.
“She (Lakshmibai) continued to wear it even after she lost her husband, her eldest son and her land of birth, all with one single Partition line,” writes Jyoti, adding, “Her youngest son, who is in possession of what remains of this chunni (the red stones of the ring), was a boy of 10, and this essay is an attempt to capture the memories that remain embedded in the deep crevices of his mind, Bansilal Chhabria—my father.”
The storytelling at the Museum of Material Memory weaves the narrative, not around a person but an object, be it maps, documents, books, heirlooms, collectables, household items, jewellery or photo archives.
“We try and use the object to speak about the person or time it belongs to, so the object is at the centre of the conversation and the landscape is arranged around it,” Aanchal says, adding, “Making an object personalised also in a way keeps the story universal.”
The documentation of the history of Seva Sadan in Mumbai, recently done by Past Perfect, is another example that vindicates the necessity for archiving, in this case from the point of view of the women’s movement in the country.
Established in 1908 by social reformers Behramji Malabari and Dayaram Gidumal, the organisation began as a home to destitute women, encouraging them to lead lives of dignity and respect. Past Perfect’s services to catalogue its history—which can now be accessed on the historical institution’s website—were sought by an existing committee member of Seva Sadan.
“Their records had documents, lovely handwritten notebooks, detailing every decision taken, photographs and more. When we went through their historical assets and started researching, we realised it wasn’t just about understanding the collection. We could see how the interests of women changed along the way. So it’s a wonderful way to see how society, through the lens of women, especially underprivileged, changed,” says Sanghamitra Chatterjee, founder, Past Perfect.
The organisation was born in 2016 out of Chatterjee’s interest and expertise in the realms of history. What initially started off as a corporate archive—they have documented histories of businesses such as Godrej, Bajaj Heritage and Exide Industries—soon started recording family stories as well. In almost seven years since its inception, Past Perfect has completed nearly 14 archival projects, including both family and institutional histories.
“It’s typically from people in their late 30s and 40s who seem to have suddenly realised that their own history, their grandparents’ journey, how they came into the city and how they built a life here, is
a story worth telling,” she says.
Familial past is also at the heart of Goa Familia. Established in 2019, it is an online repository capturing stories of generations of Goans in audio-visual format. Told through memorabilia and oral commentaries, the project, which springs from both personal and collective experiences, is about memory in its various manifestations, .
Recording the racial, colonial and Partition history of South Asia is another initiative Brown History. Started by Montreal-based engineer Ahsun Zafar in 2017, it is primarily done as a newsletter. From the disintegration of Sikkim’s indigenous lepchas to how the nurses in Kerala, once termed ‘dirty’, paved a way for better healthcare in the 18th century, Brown History tells the stories of marginalised communities from the region, by documenting their social histories, food practices, visual and performing arts traditions and more.
Like in everything else, social media platforms have emerged as one of the largest spaces to document culture as well. From ancient texts to architecture, food to music, people and places, all things cultural are finding their way to Twitter and Instagram through pages such as India Cultural Hub, India Lost and Found, Masjids of Malabar, Art-Chives India and more.
One such handle is Art Deco Hyderabad. Run by Nitya Gonnakuti, the page was started four years ago after she spotted an art deco building as an architecture student, while riding in the metro. The 23-year-old revisited the place, took pictures and posted them online. “There are archives of architecture dating before the 1920s and post the 60s till modern day, but art deco in Hyderabad somehow hasn’t been documented,” she says.
Gonnakuti is a one-person team; she researches, photographs and makes illustrations of the buildings to decode their structural nuances for her followers. As for documentation, she relies on anecdotal references that people living in or around a building offer to share. “Sometimes when people are not willing to talk, then photographs have to suffice,” says Gonakutti, who works as a freelance brand manager.
With a following of over 78,000 followers, Arts of Hindostan is among the most popular accounts, which documents the art history of South Asia. Images of sculptures, paintings, textiles and architecture from the subcontinent, with a focus on the Mughals, Rajputs and British, are posted with
a detailed description.
FOR THE RECORD
Even as alternative mediums of recording significant moments from history are being devised, for traditional archivists, there is a marked distinction between documentation and archiving. One of the key factors that sets the two apart is that the latter is done keeping in mind ‘searchability and accessibility’ in the future.
“In archiving, there’s a long-term vision, as against what is happening on social media, where they are talking about different aspects of our history and community. It certainly needs to be done, but what is essentially documentation gets blanketed under archiving,” says Chatterjee, adding, “What you are not ensuring is that this content is for posterity. There are no tagging methodologies or cataloguing, and it is restricted to a certain format.”
The requirements for archiving each project are different, and the format is customised to suit a client’s needs. A private collector, for instance, might want minimal documentation, while a museum with a large collection prefers the documentation to be done in great detail. A basic data inventory could only be things like title, medium and where it is kept.
A more elaborate record would comprise information such as the provenance, acquiring price, insurance database, publishing and exhibition history. A critical part of archiving is making catalogues, which places an artwork or an object in context of its history that would impart information, including the artist, the time it was created, other parallels in the world, or collections that have similar work and artefacts.
Minimal or comprehensive, it’s been a while that archiving went digital, meaning the records went from being hard copies to soft copies. The use of sophisticated softwares, though, is relatively newer in India. Asia Art Archive in India employs an internationally viable web-based collections, information and asset management solution called QI-Collections Trust. Stationed in Delhi, its collection currently contains over 50,000 documents, photographs, artwork, and other records, much of it available online.
MAP, on the other hand, has an in-house software called Cumulus. “We began with the TMS Collections, which is a system used across the world, but the fee was huge, and since we have a strong tech team, we started developing our own system.
Every month, we archive and upload 500 to 1000 artefacts/objects from our collection on the website using our software,” says Kamini Sawhney, director, Map. The museum is currently home to a growing repository of over 60,000 artworks, including paintings, sculptures, textiles and photographs dating from the 10th century to present day.
While record-keeping efforts are underway, creativity is consistently sought to make cultural archives accessible to the masses. Hosting exhibitions of such material is among the most popular formats. Asia Art Archive in India’s ongoing display of sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee’s life and works at the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art in Delhi has been organised in conjunction with the recent launch of the artist’s digitised personal archive.
“Archives are not some dusty repositories just lying there, waiting to be picked up. We are constantly activating the material through programmes and making it relevant to the present by creating interactions and interfaces with different audiences,” says Samira Bose, programmes coordinator at the non-profit.
With a career spanning four decades from the 1970s to 2000s, the exhibition comprises photographs of Mukherjee’s travels to historical sites, and a “unique, detailed series of hand-drawn, collaged instructions on how to instal her hemp sculptures in her absence”.
Another remarkably engaging exhibition was Eka’s recent show ‘Forgotten Carpets of the Jaipur Court’ in Goa. Through photographs, historical reports and carpets in the city and in collections worldwide, it shed light on the history of the Jaipur carpet in terms of the materials used, manufacturing techniques and colours.
A thorough archiving process meeting international standards also allows for collaborations across the globe, thereby increasing accessibility of works. “Let’s say, I’m collaborating with the American Museum, and the information for my collection is up on the cloud. If the museum curators want to see it, they just have to log into the information system, and say which works/objects they would like to take, allowing a lot of scope for working together,” says Kumar, adding, “Similarly for a lot of our work, we access online information put up by international institutions. More accessibility helps to make one’s collections better.”
Eka has done archival work for international institutions such as the Art Museum Riga Bourse in Latvia and the Art of Heritage Group in Saudi Arabia. In India, it has carried out projects in the art and culture space for clients such as the Mumbai-based Chemould Prescott gallery, Delhi’s Dhoomimal gallery, DAG, Bastion Bungalow museum in Kerala, and Gen. Amar Singh Library and Museum Trust, Jaipur.
It also boasts of the Tarun Tahiliani and Satish Gujral archives. Culture is perhaps the biggest evidence
of history, and as the lines between fact and myth gets blurrier by the day, archives are our only saviours.
Instagram pages on architecture across cities
Kochi Heritage Project: A storytelling initiative to learn and develop a deeper understanding about the city
Calcutta Houses: A visual museum of photographs capturing the nuances of the old houses in Kolkata
Windoors India: Documents architectural styles across Indian cities captured through unique door
and window designs
Houses of Bandra: Recording Bandra’s visual and cultural landscape through contributed photographs around the locality
Houses of Dehradun: Chronicling the architectural, cultural and environmental ecosystems around old houses in the city
Archives of personal history
Goa familia: Digital archive of visual and oral repository of stories of generations of Goans
Brown History: A documentation of the racial, colonial and Partition history of South Asia through
the stories of marginalised communities from the region
1947 Partition Archive: A digital crowd-sourced community-based archive that documents, preserves and shares oral histories of Partition witnesses
The Citizens’ Archive of India: A record of the personal stories of citizens who have witnessed India develop into the nation it is today
Indian History Pics: A Twitter handle documenting the history of India in photographs sourced from the internet and individuals
In a memory box
Stories of communities through art
India Ink Archives: A crowdsourced archive on Instagram of traditional tattoo art and practices from the subcontinent.
Museo Camera: A physical museum in Gurugram that consists of over 2,500 cameras and other photographic equipment dating back to the 1850
Alkazi Archives: A privately owned collection comprising photographs, scripts, reviews and audio-visual documentation of theatrical performances
Film Heritage Foundation: A not-for-profit dedicated to supporting the conservation, preservation and restoration of all things cinema
Picture Postcards Empire: A collection of postcards on Instagram of the erstwhile princely states of India
“We try and use the object to speak about the person or time it belongs to, so the object is at the centre of the conversation and the landscape is arranged around it.”
Aanchal Malhotra,co-founder, Museum of Material Memory
Told through memorabilia and oral commentaries, the Goa Familia project, which springs from both personal and collective experiences, is about memory in its various manifestations.
“One of the ways to understand who we are and where we are going is to be able to look into our past, and for this, we need to be able to see the past.”
Pramod Kumar KG, Founder, Eka Cultural Resources and Research
“Since we have a strong tech team, we started developing our own software called Cumulus, which we are gradually migrating to.
Every month, we archive and upload 500 to 1000 artefacts/objects from our collection on the website.”
Kamini Sawhney, Director, Museum of Art and Photography
“On social media, they are talking about different aspects of our history, which needs to be done. That, however, gets blanketed under archiving, but it is essentially documentation.”
Sanghamitra Chatterjee, Founder, Past Perfect
“There are archives of architecture in Hyderabad dating before the 1920s and post the 60s till modern day, but not on art deco. I was interested in it since my student days, so I started documenting it on Instagram.”
Nitya Gonnakuti, founder, Art Deco Hyderbad
“Archives are not some dusty repositories lying there, waiting to be picked up. We are constantly making it relevant to the present by creating interactions and interfaces with audiences.”
Samira Bose, Programmes Coordinator, Asia Art Archive in India