Archiving in India : A Critical Rant

You must be wondering why I chose an old cigarette ad to begin this article. I am afraid I’ll have to take a little detour to explain that-

Few months ago I was interning as a research assistant for a book that once printed shall anecdotally document the history of arts, media and entertainment in India. For that I visited many libraries in the city to collect and collate materials on music, dance, theatre, films and what not. On one of these excursions, as I was browsing through the archives of the prestigious Marg journals for an article on Kathak, I stumbled upon this ad and many more like it. But when I saw this ad, I had nothing but awe and admiration for this piece of art from bygone days that seamlessly sutured the promise of adventure and exploration through the “ancient land” with the pleasure/s of smoking “gold flakes”. All clever ads are simple. People fall for it.

There were other ads too- one about the Taj in Mumbai promising a luxurious stay for a fine price to those who deserve it (meaning those who can afford it), some about textile industry and likewise. Now, I would not call myself a connoisseur but I have always personally admired the art of ad-making- that aesthetic dedication to say so much more with so less.

When I came upon this glorious artefact, I couldn’t help but had to waste the next few days, frantically trying to look up the creative that conjured the magic spread on that page. I prayed in all earnestness at the altar of that post-modern God who goes by the name of GOOGLE but nothing came of it. After Google failed me I desperately turned to fellow humans dropping humble mails and messages to ad industry veterans on various social media platforms. But none deemed it worthy to revert back; neither with answers they did not have nor with words of consolation.

And yet my concern here is not to glorify the fidelity of my failed attempts. When I think of it that print ad was not simply about cigarettes or tourism. It didn’t exist all by itself- the sketch, the copy, the whole art work. Like all art or things deemed as art, it was meant for a certain type of audience/consumer.

Many in academia and elsewhere keep obsessing about the form, the content or one of the two when discussing art. And I am by no means suggesting that those simple-souls have not got it half-right. But what they miss and sometimes consciously so – firstly, because it entails a lot of donkeywork and secondly, because all critical class perspectives are generally horrifying – is the general ecosystem, the relations that breathe life into a piece of art and redeem it from behind the curtain, if I may be allowed to use that peculiar expression. In this case, an art magazine priced and produced to suite the taste and aspirations of the rich and the sophisticated of its times. It would include everyone who wrote in it or was being written about, the people who commissioned the articles and those who researched them, those who were making the products advertised in the magazine and those who made the advertisements for the products- each acting their own part separately and in collusion with everything else.

I am not presently concerned with the privileging monopoly of a certain group, but with the conveyance of information about the existence of that group to the people outside. Archiving when it is best practised, concerns itself not only with the form and the content of the artwork but the people behind it — the thriving Habitus. It attempts to personalise artefacts from our past, thus connecting the lives of the artists with the lives their creations. It allows us to go back in time and pull down the curtains.

Why Archiving Is Needed?

Conforming to the trends of our times I thought it wise to put together a list of reasons about the probable benefits of archiving:

  1. Past is what a present builds upon for a future to be. It gives people a sense of continuity and belonging.
  2. Archiving tells not only of the past but also of the time when it is undertaken and of those who are involved.
  3. Archiving sets the comparative frameworks of accountability and transparency for the future.

Knowledge Divide and Poor Research Infrastructure

And now that obvious has been stated, let me return to the practice of archiving itself. A momentary glance at the poor accessibility of resources on arts, music and literature in smaller cities and towns is enough to imagine the meager attention that the matter has received by the honourable Indian State. Some may dubiously insist that at least our metros are doing somewhat better (which I thoroughly doubt). But last time they checked a majority of fellow Indians did not live in the metros.

Also let it be acknowledged for the trillionth time that while reservation may have helped make more doctors and engineers from marginalised sections, but art (most kinds), its practice as well as the pedagogy around it, is still a cow that only the rich can milk. For the more academically inclined- yes I am hinting at the piling reserves of social/cultural capital, owned by a fraction of us, which always convert well if the right people are known.

The democratisation of knowledge channels in India is a distant dream. A poor culture of research leads to a poor culture of archiving and vice a versa.It’s a crying shame to know, that probably every well researched book that your professor casually recommends, has been written either by foreigners or Indians from foreign universities. And I leave it to the reader to imagine the percentage of us who can afford an education in foreign universities.

State-ly Snobbism

In archiving as in everything else there is always the hierarchy that dictates what should be dealt with and what should be left untouched. What about our popular magazines (Do we know of the first editors of Onlooker and Eve’s Weekly?), our advertisements, our TV serials (Does anyone know where to get Doordarshan’s Neem ka Ped from?If they do then they can get back to me here), the shop hoardings in open markets, our comics, our literature in regional languages?

Can their archiving be left to the unorganised, isolated efforts of the dedicated few or is it time that the Indian government should start exploring the possibilities of archiving the popular culture? I think it is time…

Silver Linings

I am not delusional at all about the Internet’s godly potential to change our lives for good. Still, it is relieving to know that a lot of archives are now-a-days being crowd sourced on social media platforms and blogs. While some are run by a dedicated network of professionals, others are kept in good health by tech-savvy devotees. Here is a list of few great ones I came across:

  1. KULZY – A networking website for advertising professionals, it doubles up as an archive of ads across all media. It is a subsidiary of Afaqs, India’s answer to Ad Age.
  1. Sahapedia – An online archive on Indian arts and cultural heritage. Organised and multifaceted it relies on interviews from experts (academic and otherwise), commentaries of practitioners and cross-media documentation. It is a beautiful work in progress undertaken by likeminded individuals from diverse fields.
  2. Pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive) – In my knowledge Pad.ma is the only comprehensive digital archive of documentaries under production in India. It has one of the most elaborate interfaces for aiding search according to genres, themes, artists and sources. And furthering the spirit of sharing the website is based on open source software.
  3. Indiancine.ma: Inspired by Pad.ma, this is a richly annotated online archive of Indian films. For anyone looking into the history of pre-1954 era films, this site is a gold mine.
  4. 8ate blog by Vinayak Razdan: Nevermind the poorly maintained blogger interface, this one is full of surprises for anyone interested in vintage print ads, alternate Indian history, folk art, old posters and films. The highlight is the short posts that dare to leave much to the imagination of the reader.
  1. Comic World Blog: It is a blog archive for old Indian comics and sometimes you will get to read a post or two on films and magazines too. It is currently rated as 44 out of 100 among the top Indian blogs on Indie blogger. Though it is saddening to know that the number of posts every year has decreased considerably from when it began in 2007.
  2. ICE (Indian Comics Encyclopaedia) Blog by Anupam Agarwal: It is one of the most organised blogs dedicated to document and serialize the production of popular Hindi comics over the years.
  3. Memsaabstory Blog: Managed by a non-Indian fan of old bollywood films, this is one of the best blogs I have come across on Indian Films. Not only does it archive chronologically the progress of Indian cinema but also has interesting posts of old articles by film industry veterans, scanned reviews from vintage magazines like Filmindia and lots and lots of trivia.
  1. Film Heritage Foundation: It was setup up in 2014 by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur to commission archiving, cataloguing and digitization of artefacts from Indian film industry. The organisation now facilitates a coursework on film preservation and restoration, which is the first of its kind in India. However, its archives are not accessible on the internet.
  2. All the fan pages on Facebook about Doordarshan, old films, magazines, cartoons, ads and everything else from a previous era. – To you I say keep at it and more will join soon and every day.

Wait a second, did I explain the cigarette ad, I think I did…

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