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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XXI No. 19, January 15-31, 2012
Collecting our memories
By Anusha Yadav

A c. 1920 picture from the Indian Memory Project collection.

"Cities have to change. Urban spaces have to evolve, I have nothing against that," says Anusha Yadav when you complain to her about how much Bangalore has changed. "But we need to remember our history," she firmly says. And we as Indians don't have a sense of history, especially the younger generation. "The youngsters in my own family don't like to remember who their grandparents were or what the family was. Some of the people in it were quite illustrious. It is this past that will give them a sense of who they are," she adds.

Anusha, barely in her thirties, is a product of the Facebook generation and you are surprised by the desire of someone so young to record oral and pictorial histories. This is her Indian Memory Project that purports to be the "visual and oral history of the Indian subcontinent via family archives". The online project has caught people's imagination in the two years it has been in existence, and has built up an interesting archive of personal histories in the short period.

Anusha says that even as a child she was always curious and loved to delve into family histories especially about the many photographs that usually hung in Jaipur homes where she spent her childhood. "We don't have good history teachers in schools and colleges in this country. No one wants to know what went on between the pages of history texts," she says emphatically.

The Indian Memory Project was started as a Facebook page in February 2010. Initially, she asked friends to share old wedding photographs for a book that she had wanted to do on weddings. But in a very short time it began to snowball into something else, when people started sharing not only wedding photographs but old photographs of their parents and grandparents with detailed histories that were clearly emotional.

"A penny dropped when I saw the response," Anusha says. The book never came about but Anusha is now well entrenched in the Memory Project. A graphic designer from NID and a photographer, she has since moved from Mumbai to Bengaluru, though she keeps a foot in Mumbai for assignments.

Archiving does not interest Indians, she rues, and remarks that the British were the great documenters, chronicling everything that the empire did. It is the same with the United States of America. In this country, however, no one even knows what archives contain, and she says with the shock only the young can feel, how there is no record in any archive anywhere of a map or document about what the Line of Control between Pakistan and India is. "The original document is lost conveniently," she exclaims.

"India itself is so diverse," says Anusha. Her project is an attempt to capture this diverse culture of the Indian people that is beyond history books and beyond the politics of the time. "This is an emotional past that isn't political."

In her blog on the project, she writes: "India's available history is limited because recorded history favours political developments. Interestingly, it's the human experience of emotions, actions and destinies that offer a better insight into what our past really was. Family albums hold a treasure trove of information, astonishing secrets, which when revealed with personal narratives, become missing links in a nation's emotional history. A past we can feel, connect and wonder with."

Unlike other archives where you need permission before you can access them, the Indian Memory Project is an online archive that anyone can explore. Most of the photographs are from the period 1890 to 1990 (after which digital photography became popular). Going through her site is like going through old family albums that all of us have but have let lie in cupboards for lack of active interest.

Scrolling through them is an emotional experience as well, as you read story after story of family histories.

Anusha is not a trained historian or archivist, but it is because of her very lack of training that the family albums give us a fresh insight into the lives of those who lived in the early parts of the century. The photographs draw you into a social history of the time, which is much better than reading any text of the political history of what happened in 1900s!

"Unlike the present day when everyone takes a photograph even on the cell phone, in those days getting a photograph taken was itself an event that you dressed up for and got the family together. A group photo was taken during a wedding or a graduation and also served as a record of the family," Anusha explains. "If not anything else, these photographs in the Indian Memory Project will be a record of dress, hairstyles, make-up and jewellery, social mores such as ways of posing, where women were made to stand, etc. In fact, many of the photographs show how men and women dressed in different parts of the country, with one woman wearing a big nose ring to show her status (the bigger the nath the more fashionable she was), while one grandmother from the South in her nine-yard sari sits demurely for a studio portrait with her husband, but wears Mary Jane shoes with socks. These are family genealogies," says Anusha.

Among the 80 or so photographs in the memory album is one of an all-woman rock band in Mumbai in the 1960s which no one was aware existed, and another of a jam session at the hallowed JJ School of Art in Mumbai.

Currently the project is freewheeling in the sense that any photograph with a story is welcome. Apart from documenting (right now for lack of funds she does it all on her own, but says she doesn't mind that as she loves to write the stories herself), she would like to show the photographs in schools and public places, again a constraint unless there is funding for it. She hopes, above all, to do a series of books.

Most recently, she has started collecting old letters. And even as you think she must be looking for letters of some historical significance, she says, "Any letter, any love letter is welcome," adding that she feels sorry that the art of letter writing has all but disappeared. "I have started using a fountain pen and writing a page every day," confides Anusha just when you are thinking that the computer screen and Word file have banished the very word 'pen' forever from our vocabulary. (Courtesy: Housecalls, published by Dr. Reddy's Laboratory, Hyderabad)

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In this Issue

Is conservation on right track?
Neglect threatening QMC building
Beach, bins & beauty
Krishnan entertains off the court
In the Fort & outside...
Walking about with
Sriram V.
Collecting our memories
'Curdrice cricket'
Dennis no 'menace' in Madras
Inspiring a crop of chess champions
Changing times
Fly away with them...
Children's focus during Madras Week

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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