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Building an Archive of personal papers: An incredible six-year journey

Keeping in view the evolving dynamics of acquisition and preservation of archival resources we aspire to build a research facility of international standards with the best archival practices in place, writes Deepa Bhatnagar

Deepa Bhatnagar

16 May, 2023 | 6m read

Archives are a treasure trove of memories and knowledge and are an essential medium for understanding the historical trajectory of a nation. The Archives of Contemporary India was started with the aim of building and managing a rich and diverse collection of archival resources to promote and support the use of primary source material for research on the modern and contemporary history of India. The objective was to create a repository of public affairs that can inform, enlighten and educate us about our nation’s rich cultural, social and political heritage and to facilitate researchers from far and wide to make use of the sources in our Archives.

The decision to establish an archive of private papers at Ashoka University through the donation of papers by eminent individuals who have contributed singularly to the emergence of India as a nation and of institutions that have played a key role in the development of literature, arts, sciences, civil society, business and other spheres of public life was considered a bold initiative, impassable too by some. With over three decades of archival experience in a research institution, I was clearly aware of the arduous task ahead. But our six-year journey that began in January 2017 turned out to be a most exhilarating one.

It is never easy to convince people to part with their life’s memorable treasures – notes, diaries, letters, manuscripts, photos, etc. One has to work towards building a rapport with the donors to earn their faith and goodwill. To begin with, a list of prospective donors was drawn up with the help of Prof. Mahesh Rangarajan, the Chair of the Archives. Taking advantage of his wide range of personal and professional contacts, we wrote to a select set of eminent people for their papers with the dual offer of preserving their heritage for posterity using the best archival practices as well as making their life’s work available for research and study. We were pleasantly surprised when we started getting enthusiastic responses to our request letters.

We were fortunate to have Dr Manmohan Singh as our first donor. A valuable collection (digital) of his private papers comprising speeches and writings, interviews, photos and videos covering the period 1957-2014 was given to the Archives. Then came the response from Kuldip Nayar. After we convincingly explained to him the Archives project, he readily agreed but wanted some assurances. We then realized the need for a written agreement with the donor. Armed with a letter of agreement we assured him that the Archives was only the custodian and that he (or his legal heirs) would continue to be the owner of his papers.

Early on, we made persistent efforts to build our trust and goodwill with prospective donors. This entailed country-wide travel. In a fairly short span of time, we achieved extraordinary success in the collection of the papers of some notable personalities – Chandi Prasad Bhatt (environmentalist & Chipko movement leader, Chamoli), Gopalkrishna Gandhi (diplomat and academic, Chennai), Divyabhanusinh Chavda (wildlife conservationist & lion expert, Jaipur), Girish Karnad (film director/actor, playwright, Bengaluru), Kiran Nagarkar (English/Marathi writer & novelist, Mumbai) Nalni D. Jayal (environmentalist, Dehradun), Justice A.S. Anand (jurist, Delhi) and M.K. Ranjitsinh (wildlife conservationist, Delhi).

Then in 2018, came the opportunity to archive the very valuable collection of Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the philosopher-statesman and the second President of India. The archives team made many trips to Chennai, five to be precise, and sifted through the precious archival material at ‘Girija’, the house built by him in 1935. The team achieved the prodigious feat of preparing a preliminary list of the huge collection on the spot comprising writings, speeches, correspondence and photos of his exceptional academic and public life spanning over six decades. This is one of our most prized collections and includes a rare collection of books and journals too.

The pandemic was a setback, it stalled our work as in other domains. Yet, we added 12 more collections during the pandemic as people found ample time to sort the papers in their homes. Having started with one small room in 2017, the fast-growing archives occupied three big rooms on the campus by the end of 2021. Last year in April, we moved to the new premises in AC04 where we have now a state-of-the-art Archives Repository for storing papers and all facilities for archivists to work as well as a Reading Room for scholars to consult the papers.

The launch of the Archives website last September increased the scholars’ accessibility to the collections across the globe. A comprehensive list of collections and descriptive catalogues with details of the contents of each collection are available on the website. Rare historical documents, photos, and audio/videos from the collections have been uploaded on the website for scholars’ consultation and they can navigate the archives through the skilfully crafted metadata to locate relevant material for their research work. We continuously add new features to the website as per the requirement of students and researchers.

Keeping in view the evolving dynamics of the acquisition and preservation of archival resources we aspire to build a research facility of international standards with the best archival practices in place. We seek to focus on the delivery of quality and effective service relevant to students, researchers, teachers and the scholarly community at large. We have engaged a set of qualified professionals in the archives for ensuring the coordinated management of archival collections including the preparation of user-friendly reference aids and preservation of both the analogue and digital. The archivists are trained for different works of the archives, catalogue & metadata preparation, digitization, exhibitions, website management, and preservation of rare documents & photos. With a sense of achievement, having procured more than 60 collections in 6 years, we are now committed to elevating the Archives project to the highest standards of excellence in all its activities and helping facilitate multidisciplinary research in the university.

(Deepa Bhatnagar is Director, Archives of Contemporary India at Ashoka University)

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