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How daily objects tell the history of India

Preserving objects to know history isn’t new. But to storify their role in people's and companies' journeys, and tell a nation's history is different

In 1955, Godrej’s first all-Indian typewriter, Model M9, launched, the first such in Asia. When an iteration was first shown to Pirojsha Godrej in 1954, he asked the engineers: “Is it as good as Remington?” Initially imported but later manufactured in Calcutta, and so popular there was a six-month waiting period, Remington’s typewriters were stiff competition. For Godrej, which mainly manufactured products involving fabrication, an intricate machine like a typewriter, with hundreds of parts and complex functions, was a challenge. A year later, the engineers finally pulled it off. Their typewriter found wide acceptance in India. Seen in the news clipping here is then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, trying it out in January 1955.  (Godrej Archives)

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One homesick night in a Delhi University hostel, I stumbled upon a blog post about memories of growing up in south India. I bristled at the idea of clubbing the lived experiences of four different states (now five) into one but desperate for something that seemed like home, I clicked on it anyway.

In addition to a smattering of intangible memories—distinctive calls from the hawkers we would hear every day, the tight braids and red ribbon bows that were mandatory in school—what really stood out in that rather poetic account was the common objects around us. One standout example was the almost ubiquitous olive green, or brown, steel almirah.

While there may have been variations of these, it was popularly known as the Godrej “bero”, or bureau. Such objects, when seen through the lens of personal histories, become a rich repository of public memory, of how the people of an area, even a country, lived. In retrospect, these seemingly everyday objects, some even dismissed as commercial products, can speak of generations of family history if accounts of their use, for example, are detailed. They become, as they did for me, triggers for memories and stories that at once ground you, not just in nostalgia but as reminders of so much more.

 The Partition Council set up in 1947 determined that museums should be divided on the basis of territories, except in the divided provinces, where the collections would be shared. An effort to partition culture had tragic consequences. In an absurdly matter-of-fact effort at equity, necklaces belonging to Mohenjo-daro were broken and an equal number of beads were given to India and Pakistan. Even giving either country one extra bead had to be discussed formally on file. 
 The Partition Council set up in 1947 determined that museums should be divided on the basis of territories, except in the divided provinces, where the collections would be shared. An effort to partition culture had tragic consequences. In an absurdly matter-of-fact effort at equity, necklaces belonging to Mohenjo-daro were broken and an equal number of beads were given to India and Pakistan. Even giving either country one extra bead had to be discussed formally on file.  (Partition Museum Archives; Images: Indian half of necklace from the National Museum, India, & Pakistani half of necklace from J.M. Kenoyer/Harappa.com)

“The need to preserve is uniquely human and we do it to maintain a sense of belonging, a sense of self or community worth and to create a shared history,” says Deepthi Sasidharan, art historian, curator and founder-director of Eka Archiving Services. “With this perspective, anything can become a trigger of storytelling and history—it’s why we collect seemingly nondescript things.”

While preserving objects to tell the story of a certain time and place is, in essence, the idea behind most museums, the institution has, in popular imagination, come to be associated with a distant and hoary past. There is an in-between, however, with relatively newer private and corporate efforts to preserve and contextualise objects which speak to a more immediate present that may take on a new collective meaning as times and technology change.

Godrej’s is an example of such an archive, given that the company’s long history—it was founded in 1897—and reach across sectors, from consumer goods to space, is tied not just to the history of India but the histories of her citizens. For instance, the light, airy, springy and sturdy CH4 chair, with its strong association with dreary government offices, tells the story of the people who used these in the decades post independence.

Seemingly inspired by the work of Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, the CH4 chairs, with woven backs and seats, were a common sight in offices, reception areas and meeting halls. The weaving process engaged the women in Godrej residential colonies. 
Seemingly inspired by the work of Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, the CH4 chairs, with woven backs and seats, were a common sight in offices, reception areas and meeting halls. The weaving process engaged the women in Godrej residential colonies.  (Godrej Archives)

The Tata Central Archives, the first corporate archive in India, launched in 1991, preserves the history of the group, founded in 1868. India’s pharmaceutical sector too—notably Cipla, set up in 1935, and Dr Reddy’s, founded in 1984—has been archiving and contextualising its developments, part of an attempt to position itself in tandem with the policies and progress of a nation and its people.

“Archives are custodians of a company’s history and journey. They are a reminder of the interplay between our history and that of post-independent India,” says Satish Reddy, chairman of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories. “As we build our future, we must remember what got us to where we are today—the vision, priorities, successes, challenges, key architects over the years. Archives build pride and act as a binding factor internally. They also reinforce brand equity externally. For all these reasons, archives are more than the sum of the various collections,” he adds.

This joint Indo-Pakistan passport, valid for one year, was issued to Hanwant Singh Hora, son of Prem Singh Hora, on 13 August 1955 in Lucknow, so he could be allowed to retrieve valuables that the family had buried in Pakistan during Partition. Hanwant Singh was issued a single-visit visa for Lahore and Peshawar district, with a validity of six months from the date of issue and a duration of stay not exceeding three months. He left Attari on 20 October 1955 and returned to India via Wagah on 27 October 1955.
This joint Indo-Pakistan passport, valid for one year, was issued to Hanwant Singh Hora, son of Prem Singh Hora, on 13 August 1955 in Lucknow, so he could be allowed to retrieve valuables that the family had buried in Pakistan during Partition. Hanwant Singh was issued a single-visit visa for Lahore and Peshawar district, with a validity of six months from the date of issue and a duration of stay not exceeding three months. He left Attari on 20 October 1955 and returned to India via Wagah on 27 October 1955. (Partition Museum Archives)

This is in line with what Sasidharan says when she notes that “private and corporate players need to be aware that they are part of a larger narrative, a part of the community and national narrative. This awareness helps decisions that are fuelled by a larger good”.

Private players too have begun looking into peoples’ histories; working through either PPP (public-private partnership) models and/or crowdsourcing initiatives, they have begun archiving both tangible and intangible memories. The art gallery Chemould Prescott Road, established in Mumbai in 1963, the 167-year-old Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, and the Partition Museum in Amritsar, Punjab (and soon in Delhi), are heavily informed and populated by objects that speak of peoples’ histories and memories—be it of a family, a city, or an event.

Korshed Gandhy, co-founder of Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, often wrote to dignitaries about things that weighed on her mind. She once wrote a letter to Nehru—hand-delivering it to him as he boarded a plane—on negativity towards Pakistan. “I feel compelled to share (his) response to my mother,” says Shireen Gandhy, current director of the gallery. “To me this letter holds particular poignancy in this moment of India’s independence.” 
Korshed Gandhy, co-founder of Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, often wrote to dignitaries about things that weighed on her mind. She once wrote a letter to Nehru—hand-delivering it to him as he boarded a plane—on negativity towards Pakistan. “I feel compelled to share (his) response to my mother,” says Shireen Gandhy, current director of the gallery. “To me this letter holds particular poignancy in this moment of India’s independence.”  (Chemould Archives)

The Partition Museum is a particularly notable example. It displays everyday objects, like a planter’s chair, a ration card or a passport, the stories and memories that they hold, and which acquired new significance after Partition.

Given the fast-changing nature of our world, such efforts at documenting the personal, which become an important part of collective memory, are crucial, says Kishwar Desai, chairperson of the Partition Museum. “It may be an ordinary piece of glass or clothing but (with its story, often a personal story) you understand it is vested with a moment we no longer have in real time,” she adds, stressing how important it is to tell people’s histories through everyday objects of present (in)significance.

Sasidharan adds that “whether it is a letter, a chair, a costume, or any object really, the ability to communicate why it represents a moment in history makes it important in telling the story of a people or, indeed, a nation”.

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