By: Laxmi Murthy
Maybe it’s a case of “too much” history – an ancient civilization and all that. The neglect of the written word should come as no surprise, given the appalling condition of the majority of historic sites in the Subcontinent. Yet, the utter disregard for manuscripts and materials of a bygone era never fails to shock.
In a series of blog posts, the New York Times highlights the sorry state of archives in India. Research scholar Dinyar Patel laments the decline of interest in archiving among his own dwindling community, the Parsis. In this piece Patel highlights the fact that manuscripts are literally disintegrating, due to lack of preservation. And this despite the required equipment being available – but also rotting away.
And amidst the fungus and termites nibbling away at India’s past comes a bespectacled knight in the shape of Prof Mushirul Hasan, who has taken over the National Archives since 2012. He is the first ever scholar to be the Director General, a post normally reserved for disgruntled babus. Patel quotes Hri Adviser historian Ram Guha: “Archives are the lowest priority for any government,” said historian Ramachandra Guha. “They are staffed by government officials on punishment postings rather than trained professionals.”
Bringing to bear a contrasting view to the “Oh Indians don’t value the past” view is Murali Ranganathan, an independent researcher, based in Mumbai. He says that the pre-colonial tradition of archives and libraries was extremely strong elsewhere in India: dynasties in Maharashtra, Assam, and Mysore kept vast collections that still survive. Beginning around 1900, he argued, Indians started to become too poor to properly maintain their collections, although several institutions, such as the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna and the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur (Tanjore), have maintained excellent traditions of preserving pre-British era books and manuscripts.
Perhaps it is time to resurrect indigenous processes of archiving, even as a new generation of archivists come to the fore, armed with new techniques of preservation and cataloguing.
[Many thanks to Amar Gurung for bringing this series to my attention]