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A Look Back At The Amazing Time I Spent In 3 Memorable Archives Of Delhi

Posted on February 21, 2014 in Culture-Vulture

By Somrita Urni Ganguly:

(I had to visit three Archives in Delhi, recently, for my research. This article is a reflection of my time spent in these treasure-houses. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ *)

I’m often nostalgic about things that I’ve never witnessed, only imagined; often homesick for places that I’ve never been to, only dreamt of. A visit to some of the archives in the city only enhanced this sense of longing and nostalgia. I have read history. I have seen it being written and rewritten, have seen it being created and reproduced. The archives gave me a tactile experience of history, and I write that at the cost of appearing shamelessly romantic. I touched parchments that I had only conceived of in some distant dream; smelled ink that I had only pictured pens being dipped into, in figments of my imagination.

My journey commenced with a visit to the P. C. Joshi Archives on the sixth floor of the Central Library of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the one closest home and most accessible. The process of digitizing some old resources was in progress, a project undertaken primarily by the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. What fascinates me about JNU, among other things, is its remarkable egalitarianism. A university named after and built in honour of the first Prime Minister of the independent nation has been the breeding ground of some of the brightest Marxist minds in the country. Joshi was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India from 1935 till Independence. Here, in a university founded in the memory of one of the forefathers of the Indian National Congress, and which is now the hub of Left, radical and ultra Left thoughts, finding an archive named after Puran Chand Joshi was not entirely surprising, therefore. This somewhat lengthy introduction to the politics at play in this institution was deliberate. The P. C. Joshi Archives is unabashedly Left-leaning. The first documents that I was shown at this archive were editions of The New Age, which proclaimed in its editorials that it was “the only leading Marxist monthly in India” (The New Age 4.13). Edited by S. V. Ghate, all eleven editions of the journal that I saw (from February to December 1938) were published from 270, Triplicane, High Road, in erstwhile Madras. Every edition contained articles, unambiguously revolutionary and Socialist in tone, theme, content and spirit, such as the people’s movement in India and China, the Russian Revolution, Communism and such other usual suspects.

What I found striking was the fact that though the authors were mostly Indians — and very often Bangalis (the passionate, patriotic, patronizing Bangali in me overtook the impartial academic scholar here, that I should otherwise be and am) — there were non-native contributors as well, such as Vincente Arrayo from Madrid who wrote an article called ‘Culture in the Service of the People’ (in the March 1938 edition — the edition which also contained “a page from the autobiography of Mao Tse Tung), or James Bertram’s interview with Mao Tse Tung (May 1938). However, more than the content, though that also, I was curious about certain other logistic details; the annual subscription rates for instance (an inconceivable amount of Rs. 1.8 for inland postage and Rs. 3 for foreign postage). I used to buy five toffees with three rupees, once upon time. My mother often talks about having bought, what seemed to her then, endless sticks of ice-candies for three rupees, once upon a time. And then, once upon a time, twelve editions of a magazine would come for three rupees, foreign postage included. These fragments of information are what I am going to shore against my ruins; these invaluable, unimaginable fragments. What I found rather interesting about the journal, and consequently therefore the social, political and economic ethos of the country then, was that such an uncompromisingly Marxist journal also had to rely on advertisers for their mainstay — be it the humble Amrutanjan or the grand Vanguard Insurance Company Limited. Situations have hardly changed. Despite all the rhetoric in favour of Communism and a socialist economy, the Marxist himself has had to fall back on the capitalist time and again, in India at least, for his subsistence. What amused me most during my engagement with this magazine was the propagandist role that it assumed. The first page of the May 1938 edition for instance ran thus —

If you are a socialist, if you are interested in modern thought and the trend of modern world movements, you must know what books to read, what magazines and weeklies to subscribe to. Here are some —”

The editor then went on to enlist books and weeklies such as the Communist Manifesto, Ralph Fox’s Lenin, The Kranti (published in Marathi, from Bombay), and The Comrade (an English journal from Calcutta), among others. Ghate also mentions the name of four magazines that such an awakened reader must subscribe to – Labour Monthly, a journal published in London, Current History, published from New York, Left Review, also published from London and, of course, The New Age! The propaganda-meets-advertising strategy, to my mind, works remarkably well! I was also impressed by the fact that other weeklies advertised with The New Age, which communicates to me something about that society — it is impossible to find instances of one publication running adverts of other (possibly rival) publications, in today’s world. One such advertisement was of Jayasree, published from Ballygunge, “a progressive journal conducted by leading women of Bengal”, including my grandmother, I must add, who, along with her husband had fought for Indian Independence under Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. I have not been fortunate enough to be cradled in the comforting arms of my grandparents. Touching the crumbling, fragile pages of The New Age, perceiving that heady, musky smell of old, brittle books, gave not only a sort of validity to the stories that I have grown up hearing of dia and dadu, but also transported me to a world that I have only imaginatively lived. I was further shown editions of The Proletarian Line (from November 1979 to August 1980), edited by S V S Subbarayudu, published from Malakpet, Hyderabad. This was the self-professed “monthly magazine of the Communist Revolutionaries of India”. What has come home with me from these editions was an article published on August 20th, 1980 — ‘Politics of Rape’. It read thus —

“Not a day passes without the news of raping women. The incidents are on the increase. Apart from the occasional incidents, organized raping has become the order of the day. … It is not the lust of the concerned persons which make them to resort to such acts. If this was the reason there are other ways and means which the present society permits (prostitution), however reprehensive the ways are.”

This was written a decade before I was born. I have lived another two decades since. Thirty years and things have not changed — and perhaps never will. Could the proof be any more empirical, more harrowing?


A visit to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), and an extensive talk with their assistant librarian, Ranjana Chakrabarty, led to my belief that we are perhaps some of the last remaining Romantics. “We digitize all our manuscripts for a couple of reasons — firstly, we rarely have access to the original manuscripts, because of which we send teams to the sites and have them making microfisches of the original manuscripts and then have them digitized; and secondly because, there are very few people willing to preserve or even interested in manuscripts in their original any more. They only need the content, which is available to them, in all authenticity, from the digitized versions.” One micro-piece contains an average of ninety-eight pages of a manuscript, and one micro-roll around six hundred pages. Even though I could appreciate the immense dedication that the whole process of digitally archiving ancient resources required, my unreasonable penchant for all things archaic found the digitized projects on Gitagovinda or Rock Art slightly impersonal. If I were a research scholar looking only for material information the digitized editions would have more than sufficed my needs, but I had gone to these archives as somebody who wanted to hold and hold on to pieces of the past. What I could hold was a 250-year-old leather bound manuscript written in the Sharada script on paper, with the first page being a later interpolation in the Urdu script. This undated invocation and dedication to the Goddess Durga came into the hands of IGNCA through a migrant Kashmiri Pundit, at a time when old manuscripts were being thrown into the Dal Lake by the Kashmiris. Along with this original manuscript is also preserved in the IGNCA’s temperature and humidity controlled store room, by the preservation unit, a seventy-five year painting on a palm leaf. What made me most nostalgic in the IGNCA were the personal collections of people like Kapila Vatsayana, who was the founder of IGNCA, Professor Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Dev Murarka.

national archive

The National Archives, that I visited last, looked to me like a treasure-trove, begging to be discovered, to be experienced; illimitable shelves of old manuscripts – handwritten and typed, correspondences from as early 1823, such as the ones written at Fort William, Calcutta, by Beadon, the Under-Secretary to the Governor General of Bengal – the fading ink of his firm pen on the now jaundiced paper, reminiscent of the former perfect, bold strokes. What whetted my appetite for more was an 1808 copy of the third volume of a six volume edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles. Classified in the Rare Books section, this book on history had a story of its own to narrate — the history of how it was once accessioned by the Imperial Secretariat Library (on September 12th 1933) and finally brought to the National Archives Library on August 24th 1965. The intoxicating smell of the paper, akin to that of freshly ground beans of coffee, the feel of the thick, musty leather-bound volumes left me hungering for more — more of history, more of the past. To put it in Lucille Clifton’s words,

“I was accused of tending to the past,
as if I made it,
as if I sculpted it,
with my own hands. I did not.
the past was waiting for me
when I came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and I with my mother’s itch,
took it to breast…”

*T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland and Other Poems.