Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 - 1917); Illustration: Paul Aitchison
Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 - 1917); Illustration: Paul Aitchison

Caring for history

Archaic conservation methods are themselves hastening the deterioration of fragile archival material in India.

Dinyar Patel is an Assistant Professor at the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research.

For the past two years, I have been working in various archives in India and the United Kingdom in connection with my dissertation on Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917). Naoroji was a key leader in the early Indian National Congress, and the first Indian elected to the British Parliament (in 1892). In the last few decades of his life he was affectionately known as the 'Grand Old Man of India', an Indian equivalent of the original 'grand old man' – the influential British Prime Minister W E Gladstone. Having conducted research at relatively small institutions such as the Forbes Gujarati Sabha in Mumbai, as well as at massive facilities such as the British Library in London, I have gained perspective on the state of archival institutions in India and how they compare to their peers in a more economically advanced, historically-conscious society.

Indian archives and libraries contain a stunningly vast and diverse collection of written and printed material: rare palm leaf manuscripts at the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur, official correspondence related to the Straits Settlements held in the West Bengal State Archives, priceless photographs and maps in government depositories, and – in monasteries, temples, churches, madrassas, and other institutes scattered across the Subcontinent – religious texts and commentaries of importance to all faiths, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. These are but a few select examples. Preserving this vast storehouse of information has, historically, been a tremendous challenge. In 1861, for example, drawing on the talents of men such as Allan Octavian Hume, the British Government of India formed a special Record Committee to address the steady disintegration of its own voluminous papers. While the committee suggested the formation of a record office – the precursor of the National Archives of India – members also urged the quick re-publication of the oldest and most damaged material. Some years later, Hume presciently remarked that, "Year by year the records are decaying; and unless some measures be adopted, it will, before very long, be found that, like the defunct Commission, the subjects of their investigations have dissolved themselves."

Crumbling papers

Some preservation challenges have been unique to countries such as India. Damp, humid weather, along with extreme fluctuations of temperature, wreak their own special damage. Monsoons and floods continue to literally wash away history: in 2006, the Tapi River carried away many items from Surat's Andrews Library. Due to the expense and instability of electricity, most institutions are unable to provide the temperature and humidity control that is so crucial for the long-term survival of documents.

But some issues are completely avoidable. Unskilled or untrained staff cause incalculable damage by mishandling or defacing material: in one archive in Maharashtra, for example, staff routinely dropped hundred-year-old volumes from high shelves instead of carrying them down ladders. Irresponsible trustees at several libraries in Mumbai have, since the 1970s, looked the other way while entire 19th-century newspaper runs have been trashed or sold for scrap. Another depository of the city's vernacular newspapers, part of the erstwhile Native General Library, went up in flames a few decades ago. The trustees of the city's J N Petit Institute let their staff sell off some of its most valuable collections for a pittance. Security at many institutions is counterintuitive, with guards unnecessarily harassing visitors upon entrance while not batting an eyelid upon their exit. As a consequence, numerous items have gone missing, literally passing under the noses of chowkidars too distracted by their newspapers and bidis. Improper and antiquated methods of preservation – most notably, the dreaded lamination process – remain popular in India, leaving 'preserved' items only a few years of readability.

Evidence of both good and bad preservation practices is apparent in the Dadabhai Naoroji Papers. Before discussing their condition, a few lines are needed in order to describe this rich and relatively under-researched collection. Running to around 30,000 documents in total, the papers include Naoroji's correspondence with a galaxy of Indian political leaders and social reformers, Indian journalists and newspaper editors, viceroys and Indian secretaries of state, British Indian officials, British politicians, European academics, an international circle of anticolonialists, and numerous other interesting individuals. I have found letters from Indian students in Japan, Parsi travellers in Iran, and even a Lucknow Muslim who took up indentured labour in Trinidad, converted to Christianity, studied at Yale, and then finally set up an Indian political journal in Glasgow. All of this correspondence is in addition to Naoroji's collection of newspaper articles, personal diaries, notes, pictures, and even a smattering of political cartoons. The Naoroji Papers also contain some of the most important source material for study of other Indian leaders whose own private papers have been lost: men such as the Parsi social reformer Behramji Malabari, Allan Octavian Hume, and Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee, the first president of the Congress. In short, the Papers constitute one of the most important resources for the study of the early nationalist movement, as well as 19th-century Indian social and political history.

The bulk of the Naoroji Papers is kept at the National Archives of India in Delhi, with a much smaller collection in the possession of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (Teen Murti). On the one hand, it is impressive that such a large collection has survived in spite of the fact that it was scattered, unorganised, and kept in godowns prior to its transfer to Delhi. On the other hand, we must remember that this series of 30,000 documents is probably only a remainder of a much larger collection; as the historian S R Mehrotra pointed out in a recent article, literally thousands of letters – especially those written by Naoroji himself – have been lost or destroyed in the nine decades since the Grand Old Man's death. The surviving letters bear the marks of damage common among a much larger swathe of material in Indian collections: brittleness, discolouration, and holes where ink has dissolved or 'burned' through paper, all signs that the material has not been properly treated for high acid content. Most of Naoroji's own letters survive only as tissue-thin press copies, which have fared much worse. In many cases, these letters are just too blurry or faint to be read anymore. While looking through letters and press copies of similar vintage in the British Library, I have been struck by how immaculately well-kept these are, using relatively cheap technology such as storage in acid-free boxes.

It must be remembered that much of this damage occurred before these letters were transferred to the National Archives in the 1960s. But some damage has resulted since, and most of this from lamination. Three or four decades ago, this was a commonly used preservation method across the world: pasting translucent sheets of plastic on both sides of a crumbling document so as to reinforce it and hold it together. Unfortunately, the lamination itself becomes cloudy, warped and discoloured over time, resulting in the 'preserved' document becoming difficult or impossible to decipher. Consequently, many of Naoroji's letters are no longer readable due – ironically – to conservation methods. I know of at least two cases where branches of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) have, in recent years, been engaged in laminating irreplaceable manuscripts held in private libraries, unknowingly wreaking permanent damage upon these collections. Preservationists in the West now realise that the best methods of conservation are the least invasive. Fortunately, Naoroji's letters are still loose-leaf and have not been bound together into volumes. Binding has caused noticeable damage in other collections, such as those of G K Gokhale and R C Dutt, two of Naoroji's contemporaries in the early Congress. Both of these collections contain extremely valuable correspondence between some of the leading Indian and British political figures from the turn of the last century.

The National Archives has witnessed major changes in the past two years, with a number of new projects being initiated for modernisation and conservation. Particularly noteworthy has been the Archives' commitment to digitise and microfilm entire collections, using in-house expertise and also collaborating with outside organisations such as the Gandhi Research Foundation of Jalgaon. I have suggested to Archives officials that the Naoroji Papers also be digitised due to their fragility, and since a microfilm run of the papers, undertaken in the 1980s, is largely unreadable.

In addition to better maintaining its existing collection, staff at the National Archives have been busily acquiring a vast array of postindependence government documents and private papers. During the summer of 2012, for example, much of the Archives' basement was taken up by Partition-era refugee relocation documents – possibly from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which dealt primarily with the Patiala and East Punjab States Union – that had been unearthed in musty godowns. Meanwhile, staff in the Private Papers division were busily sorting through and cataloguing the newly acquired papers of the novelist Mulk Raj Anand. Much more work remains, of course. Due to the Archives' aging facilities and inconsistent electricity supply, proper temperature control is still a challenge. Like many other public institutions, the Archives faces a serious staff shortage, with many officials stretched thin between multiple responsibilities and portfolios. It is highly commendable that many such individuals are, nevertheless, so enthusiastic and dedicated to their work, and to helping scholars.

Outside of major public institutions such as the National Archives, Teen Murti, and the National Library, the picture can be downright grim. Several state-level archives, such as those in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, constitute a national shame. Material in both archives has suffered from extensive climate and water damage: an academic colleague recalled seeing staff at the Tamil Nadu State Archives drying documents on a clothesline after a monsoonal downpour. In many cases, these archives are in old, unenclosed colonial-era buildings that actually facilitate further damage and decay. Bad institutional cultures compound these dire facilities. While a culture of free and open research abounds elsewhere around the globe, many institutions in India remain shackled by secrecy, wooden hierarchies, mindless control, and genuine closed-mindedness. Librarians in the West are trained to ask researchers how they can best assist in their work. In contrast, the attitude of many librarians and officers in Indian institutions is, 'Why should we allow you access to our material in the first place?' The results can sometimes be tragicomic. To give only one example, the Banga Sahitya Parishad in Kolkata appears to have denied several requests made by the respected scholar Meenakshi Mukherjee – then working on a biography of R C Dutt – to access Dutt's collection there. No doubt Dutt's tenure at the Parishad – he was its first president in 1894 – was more liberal than that which exists at the institution in the 21st century.

Befriending the archives

Poor facilities and bad institutional cultures should no longer be acceptable in an India that is increasingly prosperous, and mindful of its history. In the past decade, the Indian press has released several exposés of bad practices and conditions in archival institutions, but such reports only go so far. Such criticism is necessary, as are new funds and increased access to new technology, but all of these need to be matched with proper stewardship and activism by the broader Indian public. Indians – and not just those who study history in academic institutions

There are several existing models for how this can be done. I have been involved with the UNESCO Parzor Foundation, based in Delhi, which has worked to protect the archives and collections of the Parsi community. That organisation has helped restore the manuscripts, books and physical infrastructure of the Meherjirana Library in Navsari, Gujarat – a veritable treasure trove of material on Parsi and western Indian history – resulting in an influx of visiting Indian and foreign scholars (the novelist Amitav Ghosh will help inaugurate an international seminar at the library in January 2013). There is a very urgent need for more such NGOs, citizens' associations and public-private partnerships.

Such partnerships and associations can also facilitate the implementation of international best-practices. India has produced many talented librarians, archivists and preservationists, but unfortunately many of these individuals have been forced to look abroad for employment opportunities. While Indian archival institutions still cannot match the salaries or facilities found abroad, they can at least throw their doors open to consultation, evaluation, and outside help. I have spoken to several Indian preservationists who are keen to advise but have been frustrated by bureaucratic secrecy and stonewalling, or by general administrative indifference. It is for such reasons that Indian archives continue to use outdated and faulty preservation methods such as lamination.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to see some very tangible changes in Indian archives. The National Archives' successful acquisition of Mulk Raj Anand's papers serves as a case in point. When the novelist R K Narayan was searching for a place to deposit his papers, he chose Boston University in the United States, angering many scholars and writers in India. But there was, at the time, clear logic behind his decision. Narayan noted that if he had given his manuscripts to a government institution or archive, they would have been left to rot and gather dust. At Boston University, in contrast, his papers are preserved in air-conditioned lockers. India is not yet at the stage where it can offer its written heritage such luxury, but the logic that drove Narayan to look overseas seems much less tenable today.

~ Dinyar Patel is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University, USA.

~This article is from our series of articles on the state of archiving in Southasia.

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