A crowdsourced history told through everyday objects
Even a button can tell a tale of love, loss or longing, if it’s been around long enough. That’s why Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra want people to look at everyday objects with renewed curiosity. Their digital project — the Museum of Material Memory (MMM) — offers its website and Instagram account as a space where people from across the Indian subcontinent can record their personal histories through unusual objects from their homes, thus contributing to a crowdsourced repository of tales from a collective past.
An object must meet two criteria to qualify — it must date back to the 1970s or earlier, and it must tell a story.
There are exceptions. A passport issued in 1989, and used to travel between India and Bangladesh, was included because of the evocative nature of its tale. In the post titled The Blue Passport, Debabrata Saha of West Bengal speaks of how the document became both a symbol of independence and of loss for his grandfather and their family, issued as it was by India to refugees who had been forced to flee the land of their birth.
“You can understand your history better by writing and talking about it,” says Navdha, who works in the social-impact sector and is also a ceramic artist. “This project encourages people to be empowered by their own histories. There is a sense of pride and proximity that comes to the fore when people share their family stories and see them out there on the web.”
Harsh Aditya, 19, a college student from Delhi, writes about his mother’s ornate silver sindoor dani, and the tale behind it that unifies three generations of a family. He’d been fascinated by the object since he was 10, he says. Recently, he asked his mother where it was from.
His maternal grandmother had it made for her in the 1970s, his mother said. As the three generations sat down to talk about it, he recalls in his post how his grandmother’s face shone with pride as she spoke of the care she took to design, commission and pay for it. “Now this precious object will be passed on to my sister,” he says.
Aditya goes on to talk of how his mother knows that this sister may not wear sindoor, the object is now a symbol of love, a hope for prosperity.
The MMM is populated with the images and tales of such artefacts. There’s a still-intact pre-Partition chequebook , a voluminous farshi or full-skirted garment taken by a young woman as she left Panipat for Pakistan during Partition, and preserved by her family there.
Started in 2017, the lockdown has boosted traffic and contributions to the digital archive, with 30% of its posts added since March. Upon submission, each post is vetted and fact-checked by Aanchal and Navdha; 20 posts also submitted during the pandemic are awaiting upload.
“Objects aren’t just material things; they act as an entryway into memory,” says Aanchal, a writer and oral historian. “Memory deposits itself in things. That’s why a familiar space, smell or object can make you nostalgic. Our project encourages people to introspect about this feeling and voice it.”