At first glance, the old, fraying, photo album lying in front of me looks like any other forgotten family memento. But there’s something intrinsically special about this one. Dating back to 1880, it is the oldest photo album in the Memories of Delhi Archive (also known as Dilli Ki Yaadein), an oral and visual history project run by the Centre for Community Knowledge at Ambedkar University.
Surajit Sarkar, the centre’s coordinator, takes me through the album. A fading purple stamp reads “Bhajanlall Banker Delhi”. “The stamp is from somewhere around 1920,” says Sarkar. The photographs in the album are yet to be digitised and uploaded on the archive’s website. Sarkar points to a group photograph of some sharply dressed gentlemen, who, he says, need to be identified. “Currently, that’s one of our bits of research—on the Shroffs (the men in the picture) of Delhi. These were moneylenders from that era,” says Sarkar, adding that his team was trying to find out if the Shroffs had financed the construction of the Kauria Bridge, which connects the Old Delhi railway station to the Kashmere Gate area.
A key inspiration for the archive, started three years ago, came from another project started by the centre in 2013— Neighbourhood Museum. “The ambit of the work of the centre was to look at knowledge that wasn’t codified. Community knowledge is mostly oral,” says Sarkar. “We wanted to approach the manner of collecting this information in the city in a slightly more non-academic way, which was more people-centred. That’s when we started to think about the Neighbourhood Museum programme—pick up neighbourhoods in Delhi, organise pop-up museums about the neighbourhood’s history and it gets exhibited right there based on information collected from people in the neighbourhood.”
This project started with museums in the Shadi-Khampur area (2013) and Nizamuddin (2015), following up with one on Kashmere Gate and another on the weekly markets, among others. The Neighbourhood Museum project coincided with an oral history programme that saw senior residents visiting the university campus to talk about their memories of the city. “Some of them were journalists, photographers, chartered accountants, fishermen who have lived in Delhi all their lives…. When we met and spoke to these people, we discovered amazing sources of information and artefacts dating back 80-100 years,” says Sarkar. Among these were old photographs of Delhi. That’s how the archive came to life.
The museum project is not the only source of images. Some of the contributors are old-time residents and those now living in the Capital. The biggest photographic collection in the archive, for instance, is that of the late Lala Narain Prasad, a resident of Haveli Haider Quli in Chandni Chowk. Prasad, a chartered accountant by profession, got his first camera at the age of 14, in 1938. He photographed the changing face of Delhi and its residents until the 1980s. “Being from an Old Delhi family, he had an obsession with photographs...courtesy him we got this whole set of photos about old Delhi and parts of New Delhi from, say, 1940 to about 1980, when he started spending less time on photography,” says Sarkar.
Prasad, who died in 2016, left behind photographs across a spectrum of themes—family portraits, landmarks and monuments, childhood in the city, street trade in the late 1960s. These include some rare images, like a pre-wedding photoshoot from 1964 which shows the “Sirguthi” ceremony—the bride and other women in the family would get their hair braided with jasmine flowers. These were also woven into beautiful floral ornaments. “In Delhi, it (the ceremony) was a really big thing.... Nobody does small flower decorations any more. Nowadays, floral decorations in weddings means the bigger the better,” says Sarkar.
Some collections show an outsider’s view of Delhi. German scholar Jan Friese came to the city in the 1960s to join the Delhi School of Economics. He became a journalist with the German embassy’s press department and covered the Emergency. Friese’s photographs depict not only the political atmosphere in the Capital in the 1970s-80s, but also his family life—be it excursions to Lutyens’ Delhi or street views.
The initiative is also giving a second life to visual memories. “Sometimes, a family says that since you are doing this project on Delhi’s history, please keep this photo album or picture. Hum toh isko kabaaad main daal denge (we will just throw it away as scrap),” says Sarkar.
So far, the centre has digitised 3,800-4,000 photographs. But it hasn’t been easy. “We were also learning on the job. I still remember the first lot of digitising we did, for some reason, got saved as really small files,” says Sarkar. “We had to redo the whole thing.” Since then, the team has enlisted help from institutions such as the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. “We also asked professionals who do digitising for other organisations for help. Now we have invested in a couple of scanners and do our in-house scanning,” he adds.
The plan is to eventually make it a searchable catalogue, which will describe the different themes, ages and insights it is providing. “This kind of storytelling of the city, which comes along with the use of photography as a starting point, gives you a very different insight into what the city is. That’s our purpose—an experiential view of the city as opposed to the official, planned view,” adds Sarkar. “The way the city is planned is not the way the city grows. This knowledge actually helps you determine why it takes the turns it does.”
Also read: Meet the archivist of urban heritage