Rescued from obscurity, India’s history enters the digital age
Two academics have created a south Asia archive, writes Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi.
A group of old India hands were sitting in a cafe in Oxford in 2005, across from the university, marvelling at the news they had just heard.
China had marshalled 4000 pages of digital archives on its past, chronicling important events and trends. Anyone working on Chinese studies now had instant access to a treasure trove of rare documents sitting at home or in the office anywhere in the world.
‘‘Wow,’’ all the academics exclaimed in unison. ‘‘Why can’t India do the same thing on its colonial and post-colonial history.’’ Any academic or researcher on India or South Asia who wants to ferret out documents, magazines or rare books has to arrange funding, fly thousands of miles to India, pay for a hotel and then navigate their way through archives, often located in remote places.
‘‘The process is slow and expensive. That’s why we decided to create a unique digital South Asia Archive,’’ said Professor Boria Majumdar, one of the academics in the group, currently Adjunct Professor at Monash University and Principal Trustee of the South Asia Research Foundation.
With his wife, Dr Sharmistha Gooptu, also an academic, the two got down to work. ‘‘Frankly, when we started, we had no idea what material we were looking for,’’ says Majumdar. ‘‘All we knew was that we had to revolutionise the study of India.’’ They groped around blindly at first, raiding the homes of private collectors and scouring rare book shops.
Their first purchases, for around $4000, were from a rare book dealer in Calcutta who instructed his ‘‘peon’’ (office boy) to show them around his shop and ‘‘take them to the bathroom’’.
‘‘In the bathroom, brick shelves reached up to the ceiling, packed with documents, magazines and pamphlets. In the Calcutta heat, with no fans, we sat for days sifting through the fantastic information,’’ said Majumdar.
Over seven years, they discovered and collected a wealth of literary material. British publisher Routledge funded the digitisation of all the pages. The Routledge South Asia Archive, to be launched next week, comprises five million pages of journals, books, census reports, laws and regulations, travelogues and reports from the mid-18th century to 1950.
Theirs was also an act of rescue. In the monsoons, the couple used to wade through flooded streets to reach a place someone had suggested only to find, when they got there, that the documents were also wet.
‘‘In India, there is little appreciation of the need to preserve history. No one cares that the tropical climate and humidity can ruin paper. We had to dry sodden documents. Some needed pest control treatment,’’ he said.
The same lack of a sense of history can be seen all over India. Centuries-old monuments are in ruins. Or used as rubbish dumps or cattle sheds. No attempt is made to preserve them for future generations.
Space in India is also at a premium. The wives of private collectors, sick of cluttered homes, used to welcome Majumdar and Gooptu with delight. ‘‘Please come in and take it all away!’’ they used to say.
The couple, aided by researchers and archivists, soon realised they were building an intellectual legacy for future generations of Indians. Bit by bit the archive assumed a distinct shape in their minds. They knew what they were looking for. And they were stunned at the range and quantity of the material they found.
Reports by civil servants minutely detailed everything under the British: population figures, cholera deaths, how many public latrines were to be found in Bombay, and how much fish rotted in Calcutta on a given day.
Former Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University Professor Brian Stoddart said the archive gave access to ‘‘a huge array of important materials’’. ‘‘The benefits will be enormous and will grow even more over time,’’ he said.