Personal Essay

The Shapeshifting Archive

By Farah Yameen

I started my archiving career in the year of two momentous events in Delhi. It was the year Tinder was launched in India. Every profile on the app read ‘traveller/storyteller’. A handful were dreamers, but the Three Idiots variety of ‘live your passion’ dating partner was falling out of fashion in a flailing economy. Despite being a loyal subscriber of the storytelling charm, I had a Tinder profile for all of three days of my life. But it is what brought me to the archive. I believed with a passion, which abandoned me by my thirties, that the archive in its new forms and shapes had the capacity to revolutionise how we told stories, and pluralise history. 

I did not start out as an archivist. For the briefest blink of time, I was a filmmaker. Occasionally, I also call myself a food writer. I could say I was a storyteller in all these avatars. You could cringe and stop reading right here. In truth, I have only wanted a story narrated to me; this is how I have always made sense of the world. Unlike my peers who had developed tastes for the edgy, the genre-bending and the surreal, I only hungered for a plot. It anchored the Dalloway-ian unsteadiness of my mind. History felt deliciously stable with its calm sense of fait accompli. I see you smiling wryly at my naïveté. Stay with me. 

I mentioned two momentous events. It was also the year the BJP—Narendra Modi’s face plastered onto our psyche—was voted into power. Pluralising history, like secularism, would become a tired phrase of liberal political expediency with no substance in the years to come.

My entanglement with archiving was incidental. In 2014, I quit my documentary filming career for several reasons. Foremost, I was an abysmal filmmaker with no appreciation for the medium. I could not find a way to tell a story that did not feel orchestrated, limiting, and false. I had seen others do it with exceptional grace. But I could not fathom how to condense months of research into 45 minutes of entertainment. 

When I came to the archive through the passionate fervour of a colleague, I felt that I had been answered. The Centre for Community Knowledge at Ambedkar University had secured a small grant to document the memories of Delhi’s transformation over a century. And where could these memories find a home but in an archive. 

The Archive was generous. It could distend to take on any form. To accommodate the contradictory, the incidental, the prolix, and the diffuse. Those who came to the archive found their own slivers of meaning and history, carving out narratives from that which the archive contained, and the multitudinous significants to which it alluded in various tongues.

With archives, the possibilities of finding the same story differently each time were infinite.

The documentation of Delhi’s urban transformation over the 20th century at Ambedkar University took the form of long and unstructured interviews. Unlike films, I did not have to direct my interviewees to condense their thoughts into clips. I did not discard bits that rambled. Sometimes, my interviews made little sense, partly because I was still mastering the skill of being a listener, and partly because my interviewees went in every direction, except that of the question. 

In two years, I collected nearly 300 hours of conversation from people between the ages of 25 and 104, remembering Delhi evolving between the 1930s and the 2010s. These were respondents from different walks of life—living on streets, and in sprawling bungalows; survivors of the Partition, riots, and internal displacement; people of all genders who had with wonder and despair witnessed the city become a metropolis.

By the end of the second year, I had catalogued every interview, coded them for themes, assigned identifiers to each file, and named them by acceptable naming conventions. My fascination with the archival process was this layer of order that was superimposed upon intransigent corpora, Marie Kondo-ing it neatly into series and sub-series. The utopic archive, to my mind, could hold every imaginable experience in human history secreted casually in some item in its vast catalogue, discoverable to the discerning. 

Profusion. This is the word I have most associated with archives in the ten years in which I have worked with them. It was the opposite of what we were allowed with film; we shot for our story. Except the ‘B-roll’, that wonderful unplanned excess that brings a film together.

Archiving small, but with abandon

To me, the oral history collection I was building was this B-roll of history—free of the impositions of curatorial instinct to bring order to chaos. The archive is chaos, with a false sense of calm imposed by intricate standards of description and hierarchies of the aforementioned Marie Kondo-ing. And therefore, I collected the memories of Delhi with abandon. I collected with the conviction that every story, however nebulous, was of significance to someone with the cipher. Our tiny centre with no fire safety or archival storage to speak of could easily hold volumes and volumes of digital data. 

Our little team of four, and numerous volunteers at Ambedkar University had joined the global drive (arguably over half a century old when we began) to build small archives. It was an exciting time to be archiving small. Small archives, and community archives had established themselves since the 1970s as the backbone of documenting histories of peoples that did not always find a place of their own in large institutional archives, especially in countries recovering from the ravages of colonisation. These were small collections, with little money, and often more zeal than resources to sustain them.

The Delhi archive began with 100 interviews. I was paid Rs 25,000 a month for two years, and was the only person employed on the project. That was half the entire project budget. In retrospect, it seems almost undoable. But in 2014, when politics was decidedly tipping right globally, it felt urgent. Public history was not a new phenomenon by any means, but the conjunction of digital recording media, fake news, and viral social media circulation of convenient historical narrative was. 

As our anxieties of an increasingly radicalised history grew, not only in India, but in nations across the world where the global recession was slowly but surely turning sentiments conservative, counter efforts increased. It had been done before, and active documentation preceded the transformation in the global and national political climate by several years. Occasionally it was labeled an archive, and conceived of as such. More often though, research and organisations involved in social interventions held on to their documentation. Sometimes, this was a cognisance of their archival value. It is likely that more often, it was simply through the characteristic subcontinental reluctance to dispose of anything.

Consequently, in the second decade of 2000s when recording, digitising, and storage was more cheaply available than it had ever previously been, many different archival initiatives sprung to life from private collections (Indian Memory Project, SAADA which is US based), research projects (PaRChA Project, Democracy Archives), resistance movements (Oral History Narmada), non-governmental activities, and journalistic reporting (most famously, PARI). 

The archive was taking new shapes, with active storytelling becoming an important component of the archiving process. The spectatorial voyeurism of social media meanwhile fuelled unprecedented documentation everywhere. The archive was distending further, into unrecognisable shapes and forms.

The anxieties of the historian

It is important to note here that the bulk of history writing can be traced back to the archives, and is supported by it. There are nuances to this statement, and many archivists and historians will scream foul at this oversimplification. Regardless, we can agree that archival science has been an established discipline for some time now. Even when the contents of the archive are tricky to decipher, the science of descriptions, catalogues, and indexes is fairly well established.

Historians and researchers will swear by lists, inventories, and card catalogues. Although many of the better resourced institutions have digitised their finding aids, purists will still dig through the paper evidence to their sources for the catalogue entries that slipped under the radar of digitisation. The conviction is that the archive will yield to the earnest seeker.

To the historian (yes, I know, #NotAllHistorians), all that is knowable of our history is in the archive, organised by the infallible logic of fonds, series, items. What is not evident in the archive can be told through a study of its gaps. All that can be said, whether through its presence, or obvious absence, exists in reference to the archive. The distending of the archive is both opportunity, and anarchy. 

American historian Antoinette Burton’s excellent introductory essay to the anthology, Archive Stories, highlights the anxieties of ‘evidentiary elitism’ of historiography and the impact of the ordinary and mundane claiming their place in the archive. Think of the last time you saw the word archive casually thrown about—at a pop-up food event, the latest Zara sale, a storytelling session, a dance performance. Archives of ephemera, bodies, gossip, and food tumble pell-mell into our event calendars demanding attention. 

The anxiety of the historian, to Burton, is precisely this. Where does the historian draw the line at what constitutes historical evidence? The apprehensions of a discipline married to the assurance of provenance is not assuaged by calls for the ‘democratisation’ of history. 

Even as historians expand that which passes as historical evidence, diverse tangible and intangible objects and ideas continue to push at the idea of what constitutes the archive. The archive escaped from the series and fonds to rest in memories, in the bodies of people, in places and events. 

It has been argued variously by scholars that archival records are but a springboard for memory needing no material form, that they are unfixed and constantly altered by their interaction with the present, that they can have protean provenances, and indeed that the bodies of people can carry both the archive and its provenance. In many ways, that is a reflection of a profession and a method that is willing to evolve. In other ways, the idea of the archive has transmogrified beyond recognition. 

The arguments for this unraveling are compelling. The archive has long been accused of collusion with the state. As an arbiter of historical knowledge, it is both accepted and acknowledged that the archive often elides histories of peoples. You will be hard pressed to find the lives and stories of illegal immigrants in the state archive. The CAA-NRC move to dispossess people of citizenship was hoping to capitalise on this amnesia of the archive. 

Unsurprisingly, it discovered that the archive’s amnesia is not uniform. But the archive’s wilful forgetfulness is a powerful weapon wielded by the state. The virtuosity of expanding the repertoire of the voices that speak through the archive, therefore, is in principle undeniable.

The reimagining of the archive to include different ways of remembering, and different characters and players is an essential historical course correction.

The author wrote and facilitated this guidebook along with Divij Joshi. ‘Archives, Ethics, and the Law in India: A Guidebook for Archivists in India’ is published by Archives at NCBS in collaboration with the Milli Archives Collective.

On the other hand, Burton is right about there being no innocent power struggles in the making of archives. The feverish explosion of agglomerations of all characters—Instagram reel campaigns, fashion blogs (gorgeous as they are), ageing water-stained photographs of Calcutta lacking provenance (or credit to the collection from which they have been downloaded)—posing as archives is neither pluralization nor democratisation. It simply serves to heighten the cacophony surrounding archival material. 

When divorced from the archival labour and ethic of articulating context, archives merely become ‘content’ created to scaffold self-aggrandizing agendas. The word ‘archive’ has acquired a glamour blissfully dissociated from the tedium of archival labour. 

As with other terms that fad in and out of fashion, the term archive has come to acquire a consumerist heft (Burton) that attracts a specific audience. In Delhi, where I spent most of my time archiving, this is the audience that frequents the cultural centres of Lodi and Lutyens and takes over the Q/A at the end of every lecture, screening, and performance with pontifications on the perceived political immaturity of the event. The word lends legitimacy to the previously flippant, extending licence for intellectual preening on stages where the gatekeepers of cultural capital have not yet fortified their holds. My archival career began here, on these stages couched in the discourse of political dissent and radical inclusion.

There is a cynical disenchantment to my position, and it must be read as such. I have built archives from nothing to tell stories of the ‘disenfranchised’, to memorialise political dissent, to pluralise the voices of history. I have built archives in service of my own politics, as have others before me. I was only too pleased to discard the need for evidence. How else were we to counter the arbitrating powers of the archive on what constituted history. 

The shifting truth and evidence

‘How do we establish the truth of an oral history archive?’ was a question often directed at me. It is a question as old as oral history itself, and the answers are elegant, important, and an essential critique of historiography. But recall that I began my archiving career in 2014. In the era of Modi and, soon after, of Trump. Post-truth was no longer an abstract idea I occasionally came across in academic papers I could barely follow. 

The agenda of the post-truth archive is to build the post-truth, and follow with the archive that would support it. This reverse historiography is not limited to the archive. There is widespread acknowledgement that state funding has been syphoned off from one kind of historiography to proposals that promised to unearth evidence that supported a new brand of history. At the risk of being redundant, this is not new. The state has always funded history writing with the purpose of telling stories that support its continuation. 

What is relatively new is the wanton creation of evidence where none existed. Less than half an hour from where I lived in Delhi, a dig at Old Fort is set out to prove the speculation that it is the site of Indraprastha, the magnificent city of Mahabharata. In June this year, India Today reported ‘Evidence Related to Mahabharata era found at Delhi’s Purana Qila’. This evidence was painted grey ware pottery. 

The pottery, according to the article, dates back to the pre-Mauryan period. There is no consensus amongst historians on the actual bookends of what marks the Mahabharata era. But labelling it as such on the report, akin to describing archival documents with misleading time and provenance, lends credence to a historical narrative that jumps the gun on the evidence that establishes it.

If you find yourself nodding along, let me reiterate that the agenda is alive on all sides of the political fence across which we are so ferociously divided. In the aftermath of February 2020 East Delhi riots, I was part of an aborted attempt to archive the riots that preceded the national lockdown. 

I found myself inundated with media passed from phone to phone, each more shocking than the last. My collaborator, a scholar I admire and respect, was livid with anger at the events. His descriptors of the recordings included abuses. He was angry. I was angry, and scared. This did not help the archive. I could not verify whether the persons in the recording were who they were said to be, or that the fragmented descriptions I had were accurate, or if the videos were in fact shot in riot affected areas. 

This was an archive born of anger. An important archive, yes. A valid anger. But archives such as these are packaged to combat, not counter. The difference is subtle, but the value of our archives is in retaining the capacity to make that distinction; to be able to hold un-curated, if irreconcilable truths. To let the evidence find its tellings.

If you have stayed with me until here, you now know that recording history and archiving had quickly persuaded me out of delusions of stability. The capacity of the archive to constantly evolve and expand into unchartered territories is precisely what has set me askew again. That the archive can be several voices at once, told through bodies, objects and artefacts is extraordinary. That the idea of the archive has been indiscriminately appropriated for commercialisation and cultural currency is dangerous. 

The evidentiality of the archive is only a fraction of what it signifies for human memory. Humans have warped, told, and retold histories for as long as we have had a sense of history. What is immediate, important, and significant is what the profusion of archives means for the present instance. The question to ask as we compete to rectify, alter, and manufacture history, and conflate fact, fiction, and myth is this: ‘What do the stories we choose to keep say about who we are as a people?’

About the author

Farah Yameen is a dabbler. She dabbled with films, and moved to archives and public history. They have sustained her through her other dabbling, especially her writing. If this was confusing, you have company.