This panel addressed the question of how we narrate the archive across language, media and form by taking up the concept of the Deccan and its shifting boundaries, what the region means to us and how it has been renarrated across history. Kurush Dalal approached the idea of the Deccan as an archaeologist, noting its peculiar geography and importance. Some of the earliest evidence for human habitation in peninsular India is found there. It is a region that has continuously engaged with the rest of the world in so many ways. When you try to find evidence for the Deccan in the archaeological/ancient period, there are very few places you can go and put your finger on. Archives that talk about the hoary past have been very few and far between. As a culinary anthropologist, Kurush Dalal also looks at archiving the Deccan through the food that has come to it and the food that it has sent out. He emphasized the need for platforms that can disseminate historical knowledge in a simple, but well researched manner, especially since history is so open to misuse in today’s time. He is involved with two such platforms: Live History India and India Study Center Trust (instucen.org).
Rochelle Pinto approached the Deccan as a counterpoint to her area of research – the Konkan coast and Goa. You can’t tell a monolingual narrative of the Konkan. Her interest is in dismantling modern statist histories which bear an expectation of a normative structure for literary history. For Konkan if you have a normative literary history in mind, what you end up narrating is a lack. In the Deccan again there is no singular language master narrative. It demonstrates that you can tell a history through the conjunctions of events and persons rather than a singular linear narrative. Language use and literary history in the Deccan is not unmarked by power but we see forms of power that are differential and very varied, and the Deccan offers that as a concrete point. Both the Deccan and the Konkan are regions where in anthropological terms you have the suppression of race, they could offer alternative maps if we begin from a premise of a multiracial region - how caste and religion subsume and suppress and conceal and hierarchise racial difference.
Ashutosh Potdar spoke of the theatrical archive and its role in his research and artistic practise. The performance and the archive are seen as two poles – archive is or was there, the performance is now, in the present moment. Researchers don’t have access to the particular moment of performance, they rely on documents produced before or after the performance. The moment a performance passes, it becomes an archive. This is an ongoing, circulatory play between the new, the then, and the now. Archives and performance are intrinsically linked. The discussion revolved around the difference between animating the landscape of the ancient past and narrating the landscape, on the need for linguistic collaboration in comparative research and on archival spaces as battlegrounds for nationalism and identity.
Urdu Across Indian Archives
In this session on Urdu archival collections, journalist Mehtab Alam shared his experience and knowledge of working with the archives at Rekhta foundation. He believed that this branch of Rekhta, though not widely known, was significant since Urdu was in decline in Northern India, both in the spoken form as also institutional forms like Urdu libraries. He gave an overview of the truly diverse and massive collection of 76,000 books digitized by the Rekhta archives. The archive houses material on short stories, literary criticism, Urdu magazines (Risalas), manuscripts on medicine, banned books by Premchand, Manto, rare speeches of Maulana Azad, and much more.
Raza Khan from Gottingen University brought up the relationship of fetish that Urdu has with both the majority as well as the minority. He lamented how feelings of ‘love’ and ‘abandonment’ around Urdu have blurred the reality of the language’s caste and class dimensions. Khan’s experience of researching the collections of the Rampur Raza Library, founded by Nawab Hamid Ali, was particularly insightful. The collection includes texts not just in Urdu, but also Arabic, Persian, and even Pashto. He shed light upon the unique experience of the Rampur library that underwent nationalization after the abolishment of princely states in India. Finally, Khan spoke of the emphasis of a secular worldview by organisations preserving Urdu in contemporary times, such as INTACH, Aga Khan Trust, etc. Urdu, he argued, was deeply involved in religiosity and spirituality as well.
The Q&A session threw up questions around the logic of classification followed by the Rekhta archives, how does one ‘archive’ emotions or sensibilities, the dearth of research on collections in Madrasas, and more. The panelists responded with perceptive answers.
- List of all partnering libraries at Rekhta (including Rampur Raza) https://www.rekhta.org/contributorsebooks?category=2
- Qaul-e-Faisal https://www.rekhta.org/ebooks/qaul-e-faisal-abul-kalam-azad-ebooks
Artists and Archives
This panel featured three artists, who have used archives in their work to explore questions of representation, identity, history, memory, and loss. The interest of artists in archives occurs simultaneously with critiques of museums as institutions of power. Afrah works across mediums and spends lengthy periods of time with different archives and collections which informs the conceptual and philosophical framework of her work and also helps her arrive at the forms that it will take. In her presentation, drawing on different projects she has worked on, she spoke about her process and the distinction between navigating an archive as a scholar versus and artis, and embracing ideas of play, working outside its imposed categories and metadata, allowing yourself to go on a quest of discovery, making unlikely connections.
Anuja approached the archive as a documentary film maker who places importance on the role of the archive in speaking to history and the role of documentary filmmaker to make little histories against grand narratives of the state. Her work with archives explores what happens when a user encounters the documents, what happens when documents from outside encounter documents inside the archive. She is interested in the notion of reading as a performative act, and in the ephemera that often sit unnoticed within archives, as well as in the ephemerality of the archive itself.
Pallavi started from her larger artistic concerns and how the archive might be implicated in them. Her practise is about thinking about the philosophical possibilities of non fiction as an aesthetic strategy that works as a collaborator of fiction rather than in opposition. Her work, which often engages with historical, strategic, and narrative disappearances through non-representational approaches and forms, mounts an implicit critique of the archive and notions of accumulation, hierarchical ordering of knowledge, and archival fetishization. Her work reinserts this critique into the space of the archive itself.
The discussion focused on the difference between navigating or negotiating rather than accessing the archive, the idea of play, and why it is important to not see “gaps” in the archive as something to be filled but as the very zone from which interesting ideas and practices can emerge. There can be no “whole” archive. Artistic practices of this kind can help the archivist reimagine push further categories and modes of organisation that structure the archive.