Under a photograph showing two men at a pen exhibition in Bombay in 1951, a woman tells the story of her grandfather and granduncle, who struggled to run a pen-making business in pre-Independence India, through the duration of World War II.
Other photographs on the website Indian Memory Project.com offer similarly intriguing narratives — one woman submits a photograph of her mother and her aunt, dressed in traditional wear, who were also amateur rock musicians; a man shares a photograph of himself and his sister as children, playing with young members of the rare Andamanese Onge tribe; yet another has sent in a photograph of his dapper great-grandfather, one of the first Indians to attend London’s Royal College of Art.
A total of 130 such pre-digital-era photographs are featured on the site. Founded in February 2010, the online visual archive urges people to submit their family portraits and share the stories behind them, whether they are anecdotes, historical or social context or pure nostalgia. Visual cues such as costumes, hairstyle and jewellery, backdrops of streets, lawns or an opulent haveli spark the viewer’s imagination.
“The aim of the project is to create a repository of visual and oral histories of the Indian subcontinent through family photos,” says founder Anusha Yadav, 39, a Mumbai-based photographer and book designer. To attain this goal, Yadav dedicates anywhere between an hour to an entire day editing narratives and interviewing those senders who would rather narrate their stories than write them.
“Most first-world countries are great with archiving,” says Yadav. “But India has a lot of catching up to do. I used to often joke that, here, history repeats itself because it was never documented. The memory project is my small attempt at archiving the subcontinent’s history.”
Across the country, similar attempts at crowd-sourced archiving are taking root, leveraging the power of digitisation to create online archives on everything from family portraits to regional Indian cuisines, folk and Hindustani classical music, architecture and monuments and even traditional Indian jewellery.
“Government archiving is intended to lock things in a cupboard where they gather fungus. The beauty of such online archives is that they are popularising what they are archiving,” says Shefali Bhushan, 42, filmmaker and co-founder of Beat of India, a first-of-its kind website to tap into the Internet to record, archive and disseminate folk music via paid downloads.
Launched in 2002, the website allows listeners to choose from a total of 1,000 tracks by 80 folk artistes across northern India for `30 per track, 10% of which goes to the artist.
According to Mumbai-based sociologist Sarala Bijapurkar, for a country that takes pride in its history and cultural diversity but whose government archives have remained largely inaccessible to the general public, “such archives are liberating because they are in the public domain.”
A majority of these digital archives are being compiled, updated, and presented either in the form of a blog, video log, website or an e-book.
“The role of the Internet, of course, has been crucial,” says Bhushan of Beat of India. “Plus, social media makes good archival projects go viral. This transformation in the approach to archiving where the focus is on popularising rather than preserving is quite unique.”
On a more philosophical level, Yadav attributes the mushrooming of digital archives to our fear of the future. “At the turn of the millennium, Indians were excited about a lot of things, including a capitalist economy. But with bad governance, social chaos and policy paralysis, today we are terrified of the future,” she says. “In complex times like these, we often seek comfort in the past, when things were simpler. It’s an easy escape route.”
Submissions on her site, meanwhile, have risen from one photo a month in 2010 to four in 2013. Its popularity, in fact, has led to the launch of the Indian Jewellery Project, a Facebook album intended to archive images of traditional Indian and heirloom jewellery and document details about how the pieces were made and used.
“The photographs must feature a jewellery piece where the piece itself or the context or the way it has been worn, has something meaningful and historic to convey,” says Puja Bhargava Kamath, 35, a Delhi-born, US-based jewellery designer who created the archive.
According to Lakshmi Lingam, deputy director of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, it is important to have a memory of the past in order to gain an understanding of the future. “The government archives its own correspondence. This sort of administrative archiving is important for a broader public discourse from the vantage point of administration and control,” says Lingam. “But it is equally important to document oral histories, cultural narratives and contemporary transformations.”
Much of the layered cultural insights into Mumbai’s transformation, from a fishing village to a textile hub, to now a city that’s towered by glass buildings, says Lingam, have been documented by private researchers and historians. “The Internet and technology have heralded new forms of knowledge production and dissemination, and this is what many amateur archivists are tapping into,” Lingam says.
In another crowd-sourced digital archiving initiative, Mumbai-based marketing executive and food blogger Perzen Patel, 26, launched Best Kept Secrets earlier this month. This invites people to share food secrets about regional Indian cuisines — from recipes to anecdotes associated with Indian food. Of the 35 entries she has received, Patel will compile the best 10 into a free e-book.
“Most of us mistakenly believe that history is about wars, but history is also about lost treasures. It’s about a dish that will never be cooked again, or a textile that will never be woven again because the art of weaving died with that last weaver,” says Patel. “With the power of the internet, we are now in a position to unearth those lost treasures and preserve their memory.”