Updated: Nov 23, 2020
This talk was conducted as part of the fourth annual Teaching History conference, The Idea of Culture, in August 2018 in Calcutta.
I hope that the material I present will provide a few ideas for how archives can be linked with history in the classroom. To briefly introduce myself: I trained in filmmaking, and then in visual anthropology, and I’ll draw links between visual and material culture and archives as part of my presentation. I would also like to thank Sudeshna for setting the stage by speaking about institutional archives and collections—ordering, collection management, dissemination of collections and display as well as engagement with the community. In my presentation, I am going to shift from institutional archives to individuals working with archives, and how we position ourselves vis-à-vis these institutional archives?
To begin, a few questions and concerns: Why does one collect? If we forget words like archive and museum and collections, what is it that makes us interested in things? I grew up collecting stamps—what did it do to me? What was the sense of history or the sense of ownership or engagement I developed? What is the kind of scholarship and methodology that we bring to this activity, based on our interest? Sudeshna spoke about it briefly, but we have to be very careful about it even when we work not only with tangible objects but also with ideas. After all, an archive is also an archive of ideas. What happens when an individual interacts with them? How does our imagination and engagement/s re-or de-historicize? Sometimes,it might be even better to look at things out of context. Not always, but sometimes. The most important thing—when it comes to culture—is the gaze:how are we looking at the material and what is the voice, or what are the multiple voices, that we are trying to hear and how do we understand from them?
I was very fortunate to work on anon-fiction feature film called Seven Islands and a Metro[i], on the city of Bombay by Madhusree Dutta. When I joined the project, about 80 per cent of the film had been shot over the past three years and I was supposed to shoot the remaining 20 per cent and then handle post-production. What is very interesting is that, even as we were shooting the film, there was an acute understanding that we were not shooting only for this film but simultaneously developing an archive of oral narratives within the city of Bombay, which is why the interviews were structured in a particular way. Here is one of the posters of the film, designed by me:
In the background is bamboo scaffolding, a very telling moment of the conditions of the South Asian cities. So, the idea of construction is the background for the idea of writing on the city; tales from Bom Bahia, Bombay or Mumbai, building an archive of oral narratives of Bombay—the transition in the city. What are these voices? Why are these voices important? Why is it important to give a platform to these voices? Why was a public archive required?
Apart from the institutional archives, for audio-visual media there are corporate archives. Even though we have the Internet now, a lot of material is getting more and more cloistered, manipulated and guarded. Further: How can we use video and documentary practice, not only as a way of engaging with community but also with the purpose of creating an archive with multiple layers of annotations? Because, as we said, depending on what you hear, what your understanding of the context is, multiple readings are possible. And it is very important to be able to put it all together in a certain way. The idea of Padma[ii], and a sizeable part of the content on it, emerged from here. Somewhere, we started with a large number of DV tapes which had to be logged for the post-production of the film. It’s the best learning that I could have ever had on the city of Bombay because I went through hundreds of hours of footage covering interviews of hundreds of people. How was the footage going to be organized? There is a lot of material on the site from multiple sources. What are the projects which these rushes are linked with? What are the topics that are covered? Who are the people involved in creating those rushes? And then, finally, key words and themes that have been addressed. These were extremely important considerations.
A large part of this archive then became the source for Project Cinema City[iii]—where they were transformed into art projects. An artwork I had done for it, part of The Calendar Project –had a very interesting premise: through art practice, we try to recreate a certain histories of the city of Bombay, retroactively, and create calendars for each year. There were a number of senior artists who were invited to create these calendars, and this is the calendar I made for Liberty Theatre. In 1949, Liberty Theatre was opened in Bombay, one of the first really plush cinema halls for showing Indian cinema. We very consciously featured the film Andaaz to draw out the ideas that we wanted to plant into the history of this theatre. This is not about historical accuracy, though. There was a nationalist moment there, the idea that Indian films could also be seen in this kind of theatre with its beautiful art-deco architecture and air-conditioning.
From 2010, I have been engaged in documenting architecture and material culture around Islam in the western Himalayas. While there was continuity in methodology from the projects in Bombay, there was a huge dearth of material around Islam in that region. Because when we imagine Ladakh, we don’t think of Islam. We think that Islam is in Kashmir and Ladakh is entirely Buddhist—and that’s not true. I went from village to village and documented the spaces, the objects, the architecture, and built a database. The South Asia Institute at the University of Heidelberg facilitated by Tasveer Ghar had offered a fellowship which helped formalize this process over a period of two years and archive the material on Heid Icon.[iv]An example: this is an old Tibetan-style mosque in Chuchot Gongma, around 300-years old. Nowadays these are all being reconstructed in concrete. There are in-depth notes and annotations that we were able to do for each of these images on the site.
The notes cover architecture and its transformations. The photographic documentation was followed by an essay,[v]which is available online along with videos and images. Subsequently, I got a grant from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences[vi] to conduct interviews of people. There were almost about a hundred hours of interviews. There is a trailer of the project on the School of Media and Cultural Studies page. The current issue of Marg, The Draw of the Hills has another article that I subsequently wrote based on the more recent work on the same subject.
Moving on, I want to return to an artwork on Kashmir, part of the Calendar Project.[vii]We wanted to do something on the Agfa, the first point-and-shoot cameras. It was a historical moment, especially in the Valley, because this Valley was not being shot only by photographers but also by amateurs, tourists. These are the work-in-progress files for the Kashmir calendar that we were creating. Our aim was to juxtapose various kinds of images that have been created that then become classic stereotype images of Kashmir. If you see over here, we have taken lines from the actual advertisements that Agfa and Kodak were bringing out at that point of time. We then settled on this tagline which said ‘Agfa makes you feel like a star too’.
The idea was to use archival images as part of the artwork. So, for instance, this image is from the Mahata archives. This is an image of one of my friends who had travelled there in the early 1980s as a child and was photographed wearing a pheran. But the real reason I am showing you this project is because something I did in 2012 resulted in another project for the Singapore Bienalle in 2016 when I created an installation[viii]of photographs and objects of material culture. On the wall we displayed photographs of men, women and children wearing pherans from the Mahata archives, and in the foreground we were able to display some of these pherans made from various materials—velvet, wool, a sort of cheap commercial chiffon a lighter material that is worn in the summer; the kind of staple colours that are used; the various kinds of embroideries practised—to create a tactile experience of this object within that space.
I will conclude by recounting another project in Ladakh. In 2016–17, I received a Fellowship[ix]from the India Foundation for the Arts to engage with a collection at the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (IGRMS). I was very keen to explore their collection of objects from the Himalayas. I wanted to engage with a number of artists from Ladakh and have them interpret and draw stories around the objects we selected. For instance, how do we deal with the political re-drawing of borders, issues around migration, refugees and nation-states? How do we bring in all these histories into the way that we curate and narrativize these spaces?
We selected three groups of objects from the region. The first is a cape, called a bogh, worn around the shoulder. The second is a set of flasks—it is a kettle—called a tibril and a melang and it is in two parts. There is a part here that has the tea and the bottom holds the coal which keeps the sweet or buttered tea warm. The third is a pair of shoes—the paabu and the lapul. In Ladakh these are very significant objects because they traditionally came out of recycling every kind of material available in the region. So, the leftover nambu—locally woven wool from the gonchas, the long woolen clothes—would be used, the leftover leather from the musical instruments, leftover threads that came out of other things. We wanted to draw out all these stories in some way.
We started with a photo documentation of these objects across Ladakh and we tried to look at how they have evolved historically, from animal skin to the first single or dual-coloured bogh you see in Changtang. We were also trying to evoke ideas of how this object becomes more than just an item of clothing—so you see the Chang pas, nomadic ladies carrying their babies in them. At the bottom here, you see a whole range of brocades. These are Muslim brides in Ladakh who wear boghs made from brocades from Banaras. These are again changpas, but because of their proximity to Kinnaur, their weaving has a lot of similarities with the Kinnauri shawls that you might have seen. Over here is the thigma, the local tie-and-dye process. This is an old lady from Turktuk who is wearing a shawl but has draped it like a bogh. So, we were trying to map at all these variations. The range includeswhat is perhaps familiar to us and has extended itself into the contemporary aesthetics of the bogh,the kinari work—cheap embroidery one sees in markets such as Karol Bagh or Lajpat Nagar.
We then mapped out the kettle, in its variations: its interpretation in local pottery in aluminium, as it became an industrialized product but then also how its use has transformed with the advent of the thermos flasks. With the coming of the thermos flask, these objects were no longer required—you no longer needed a fire at the bottom to keep it warm. So the last part in this transformation is into a ceremonial or ritual object.
With the shoes, we mapped out all the different layers of materials being used, from leftover thigma to a lot of jute bags which were up-cycled to construct the soles. In the middle of the twentieth century, there were the transformations that started coming in with the presence of the military and Indian civil servants. Ladakh being a popular trekking and adventure-tourism site, there has always been a market for cheap adventure gear—along with warm clothes and shoes, such as the fake Ugg boots in circulation there. We mapped all that out and tried to understand what was really happening there.
This image is to give you a sense of the display. The images were created by Gulzar, a photographer, and Chemat, a sculptor, who collaborated with me. We displayed the objects and the images next to each other. Chemat has been working with the idea of the spindle which symbolizes the core of the idea of textiles, which materialized in Mother Spindle, where the process and research become a part of the artwork, the male and female spindles—the men and women use different kinds of spindles, the raw wool, the yarn, the woven cloth and then the idea of all these colours merging into the culture of Ladakh.
The other installations were inspired from the shoe and the kettle. While the outside was embellished by all these different brands and motifs from the shoes and kettles, the inside had screens displaying the documentation of its making and circulation. He had done an artwork while he was in college, called Welcome to Ladakh. It was a morph of the kettle, shoe and the hat—the traditional wear of the Ladakhis to welcome a special guest or royalty. We took that structure and we literally broke it in half—we said we’d split this sculpture open, and, inside it,plant the collection of narratives that evolved out of our research. The space for the show was a chansa, a small kitchen which is part of the outdoor museum at the IGRMS. We used the inside of that kitchen and refashioned it for our purpose. We displayed the textile and the shoes on one side, and the material objects—the kettles and the flasks—on the other.
I began with a few thoughts that I try to keep in mind whenever I engage in these kinds of projects, I will end with some that emerged from these engagements. How can objects and art practice become a site for preserving memory—certain histories? I felt that Chemat’s artworks did not just derive from the object but also from his understanding of it. I will end with a short story. In the textile installation, many have wondered what that form is. A lot of people say that it is a head of a deer, but it is in fact a spindle with the yarn woven around it. For him, the spindle is something linked to motherhood and feminine force. In the past,spinning and weaving were considered essential skills for a girl in Ladakh. What would her child wear? It was not a luxury, it was essential. And the first story he told me that inspired that papier mâché sculpture was: once when he was back home he saw a young lady in an advanced stage of pregnancy. And she was learning how to spin because, nowadays, no one spins. And she was doing a rather horrible job of it because her spindle was not very uniform!He sat there and saw her struggling. When amateurs try to use the spindle, they can’t do it as skilfully: the thread keeps spinning over. She was getting very embarrassed and kept doing and redoing it. So this sculpture was inspired by that story of his. It was about him drawing such stories into his art practice and then making it a part of this narrative. I think I will just end here and I hope you have some questions.
Question. I am a student of cultural studies and philosophy. Your presentation was partly a relief for me because my experience with the more eminent universities here has been a certain kind of resistance to inter-disciplinarity. What I see in the kind of archiving you are doing is that apart from the history and anthropology, it accommodates the kind of hermeneutic and critical strands of humanities. In the sense that you do work with interpretation, you do work with producing meanings and that, I think, is very crucial. Because it is the tradition of argument that the humanities have always been engaged with. So, I just wanted to know what your experience has been while interacting with universities and institutions.
Gupta. I am more interested in the individual. It’s very easy for us to be critical of institutions, I worked in a university in Delhi and there are various pushes and pulls that determine things. My experience has been derived from individuals. I have, for instance, interacted with the University of Heidelberg through one or two people who facilitated a project and created an opportunity. Somebody’s interest in the South Asia Institute to document peripheral practices around Islam triggered this project. But a lot of universities, both in India and abroad, are developing projects like these. It depends on people and individual imaginations and their striving towards making something happen. But, yes, the awareness is definitely growing and one of the reasons why we planned this session was because we need to look at them more critically.
One of the biggest problems of working with oral narratives is that they can be very misleading as well. Those of us who are familiar with the South Asian experience, we know that it is extremely fractured, tormented, it is extremely painful. We must remember that the act of forgetting is also sometimes a very conscious act. Sometimes people don’t want to remember certain things—you might have read something in a book and asked somebody about it, and they replied by saying it never happened. But what does that mean? Does it mean that it didn’t happen? Or does it mean that they don’t wish to talk about it? I have not gone too much into Kashmir, but these are complex issues and a university as an institution may or may not be able to deal with it. But it is to do with individuals, to determine the path, the ethics and bring about the right kind of connections and make it happen.
Sulakshana. I am an anthropologist currently working on a memory, cultural and historical dialogue initiative in Sri Lanka which is looking at dealing with the past and, more narrowly, looking at the war and dealing with that past. Something we are struggling with right now in our work is the ethics of memory culture. So I’d appreciate if you could tell us a little about how you managed or what were the challenges you encountered in balancing that fine line between creating visibility for a marginal community vis-à-vis the danger of exoticizing it.
Gupta. That is a complex one. I have been very fortunate because I have also been teaching throughout the same period. I had the rare opportunity of interacting with young people (as mediators) with whom I have been able to develop an understanding over the last 10 or 12 years and with whom I can now collaborate. I have been aware that sometimes we take too much responsibility on our own shoulders. Sometimes it’s better to just offload that. One of the reasons I decided to show the Ladakh project, the one that I did with Chemat, is that, at the end of the day, you can make your point of view as clear and transparent and as understandable to your collaborators and let them take it forward. I included those two slides on Gulzar and Chemat—they have developed an understanding, over a period of time, what Abeer stands for, what are his politics are, what he is looking for. Equally I too have had the luxury of getting to know nuances and when we discuss a project, we discuss the contours of that project rather than the content. As Anand mentioned on the first day, one of the essential parts of being an anthropologist is to just ‘hangout’. Because the people need to be able to trust you, they need to be able to know you enough to be able to entrust you with their idea and build a dialogue over a period of time before we can even begin a project like this. I don’t know if I have been able to answer your question. It is a really tough one, but that is just one of the ways I have tried to work around it.
Question. I come from Birla High School and we have a heritage club. Our children make small movies on artefacts and they are very inspired about this. I would just like to know: When did you start? What was the inspiration and how did you go about making these films? Was it school from where the inspirations came? My second question: Do you also do comparatives in cultures? Do you find something in Ladakh that is similar to something in another culture? Because, in the end, everything—all cultures—are unified by certain values.
Gupta. The inspiration: well, growing up in Calcutta, I don’t think I had a choice but to become a film buff, to want to become a filmmaker. But going off and studying filmmaking, that was the easy part. How to press the record button is not very complicated, but what do you record? That’s the biggest calamity we are fighting now—that it is so easy to press the record button. Fifteen years ago, you’d have to wait for months before you even saw a camera. Now, everybody has a camera. What that does to recording itself is another crisis we need to address at some point. But let’s put that aside for now. So, yes, my initial involvement was through documentary practice that I started with in my presentation. I entered, or rather my explorations began, with documentary and I was very fortunate that I was working with people like Madhu and various others in Bombay. We were very conscious that we were not just making these recordings for a film—we had that broader agenda. So, that could be the methodological ‘turn’ in filmmaking. Because a lot of people still look at filmmaking as a means to an end: you shoot, you edit, you make a film—and you’re done. But we said: if we are engaging with documentary, it is not just about making a film and taking it around the world. Of course, that is important but let us also try and develop databases.
This shift I talked about when I moved to Ladakh—that, when one started working with Islam in Ladakh, one did not have a database to work with. There were a handful of scholars who had written about Islam in that region. So we got together and discussed it.The respondents were 84, 85, someone was 89, someone was 92.There was a gentleman in the film from Hunder, teaching in a school in Leh. He was 20 years old in 1947. More than just having the meetings for myself, I wanted to save these interviews so that later generations can watch.Thankfully, he is still around. So, I don’t know if I have answered your inspiration question, but that’s how I navigated my way.
Coming to the second part, the comparison part: I wanted to bring up this image because, during my stay in Kashmir, when we were looking at the images, the preceding images I showed you with Sharmila Tagore on them for the calendar, when we were collecting images of various kinds of pherans, we realized that from Turkey to Tibet, all these garments have the same cut. It only changes in size and the way it is worn. The Ladakhi goncha is constructed in exactly the same way. It is just that the material is thicker and longer and made loose so that it can be tied up at the back with what is called askeryaks, (a cloth belt) to create more layering.
When you are working with culture, it is extremely important to be able to look at patterns and ranges. When we talk about ordering—one essential aspect is to look at how the patterns spread and what kind of range things exist in. The coppersmiths of Ladakh were actually Newaris whom the Namgyal kings invited over in the sixteenth/ seventeenth centuries, gave them a village and had them settle there. Now that history itself is something they may not talk about any longer,because they will say ‘we are Ladakhis’. But that history is important for us to know because Nepal was where this superbly fine copper work was happening. This tradition is drawn from there.
Another example: there is a kind of relief work being done on the pottery. It’s freehand pottery, it is not made on a wheel and there is relief work on it. We realized that this is an example of pottery influenced by the metal ware, because this relief work was being done on the metal work. In conversation with an archaeologist working in Ladakh and in Afghanistan, we realized that this is a unique product that is only seen here where it has been directly influenced by the relief work done on the metal pots. And that is one of the inferences that we drew from this kind of comparative exercise.
Padmini. I work at Srishti, Bangalore. To Anjum, what you were saying about excellent cataloguing: there is a very easy to use cataloguing application called OMEKA. And I completely agree with what Abeer was saying that, in order to learn about the collection, one of the best things you can do is to annotate it. And this is something that schoolteachers all over the world have been using. So it’s definitely worth taking a look at. In answer to our young friend who said that interdisciplinarity is unfamiliar at Indian universities, you might want to talk to Jadavpur, to Srishti, to TISS. But my question to you Abeer is, I work on—and I have been recently writing about—critiques of Google Cultural Institute, and I noticed that your work features there as a part of the Singapore Bienalle. What I have been writing about is the politics of representation when it is mediated through the digital. But, of course,it also arises from what is given as information to machines. What I am a little confused about is that when you are saying your friendships with people who you are representing allows you to represent their work, what does it mean in terms of them being recognized as artists? Because it is still your name, Abeer Gupta, on the Singapore Bienalle. So are you photographing and documenting the work of a community and are you the artist? And when you are talking about the pherans, I don’t know if there are allusions to who has made them. So I am wondering about the layers. Because when you are talking about documenting an object, who creates the object is as significant as who is documenting it and who gets recognized for that. And in academic circles, or even in culture circles, recognition is definitely something that works. Recognition means tenure, for example. But to be very frank, when we work with communities that are less fortunate, it’s money that works, or recognition that will then get them money. So, what I am saying is: once you move away from that space, what happens? Also what you said about drinking and partying, and I love this—ethnography as advanced ‘hanging out’. I think there definitely is a space for that, but that can’t be done with everybody. Gender is a huge issue here. So if you wanted to work with women who make pherans, how would that work?
Gupta. One of the things that has inadvertently been part of my practice is the constant interaction with artists, artisans, craft persons. Having studied at NID, we grow up very close to weavers and craftsmen. Your scepticism is quite to-the-point. To clarify the information part of it: I don’t know whether Google Cultural Institute actually represents all the information on the page. But the catalogue has descriptions of where those clothes were loaned from—a lot of them were old pieces which were finally returned to the people I had borrowed them from. And in the catalogue we made an effort to make a note of whom I had loaned what from and a description of the material, approximately the date. So if you go back to the first slide, when I speak of acquisition, that itself becomes a part of how I describe my work. Because acquisition or provenance itself is so contested. And as an individual that is something we must confront. Because we don’t have the luxury of taking something away and saying ‘we just found it’.
Another example I spoke about is Chemat’s and Gulzar’s names. So, for instance, IFA just wrote to me, they want to use this image on the right, probably on their calendar. I told them exactly what to write as a title for it: Mother Spindle, Chemat Dorje, papier mâché, wool, 2017. We know that a lot of artists even today, including a lot of very senior artists, are doing artwork where the younger artists and craftsmen and artisans working in their studios are helping them produce it. But it has also become like design, it has become a label. With digital technology, one of the things we can do is connect people. I am just the facilitator which is why I ended the first slide with the idea of curation. You know, the gaze and the voice and the representation of it. It is extremely important because, for along time we haven’t thought of giving it. Now, I think, it is really time that we allow these voices to come out.They are my students, they are my friends,they are dearer to me than anyone else. I am just saying that it might sound like I am drawing too much from personal relationships, but it’s not so. That itself becomes part of the process.
Audience. It is worth talking about because that is one of the biggest issues we face today.
Gupta. Absolutely. This project was recently presented at the International Congress of Ethnography and IUAES, Brazil, part of a panel called ‘Artist, Artisanal Agency in the Periphery’. Sudeshna mentioned Michael Herzfeld in her presentation—that’s one of the texts that I draw a lot from. Finbarr Flood, whom you mentioned, is an inspiration for this project.
Sukanya. I teach history. I am obviously interested in archives because I am a historian.And since your presentation shifts from the institution to the individual, I wanted to ask you: archives are repositories of memory, but they are also repositories of knowledge, and, as we know, knowledge also has a link with power. So what are your thoughts on that? And when you are talking about establishing relationships with your collaborators, you are lucky you are an artist and whoever you collaborated with are also artists. But what happens when, for example, I work with hawkers? They had an archive of their own and I faced a lot of problems dealing with them. First, because of my gender. And second, because many of them didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. Because I was a historian, they couldn’t understand why I would speak to them. So, this concept of power along with the idea that if the person with whom you are trying to build a relationship with doesn’t really understand the kind of work you trying to do, then how do you build that relationship?
Gupta. The answer is education, which is why we are here. The next answer is that the very fact that we are acknowledging that there is a power equation in the process is a good beginning. If we can acknowledge the individual and,as I said earlier to Padmini, wear it on our sleeves and be conscious about it, it will automatically become a part of a process.
The gap that you face is a tangible gap. We’ve all faced it. But that becomes our responsibility. Last year in Bangalore, I had spoken about an education project that I am running in Ladakh, where all these artists are working with me and we are developing school curriculum around heritage. We have to often take on multiple roles and try and become facilitators of this change. I know it’s very easy for me to go to Ladakh and say, ‘Oh, you can’t, you don’t understand.’ But then, whose problem is that? If it is my problem, if I need them to understand, then I will have to sit down with them for 10 years and bring them to a point where they can understand. Chemat was part of a workshop we did to inaugurate the Ladakh Art and Media Organization (LAMO). I worked with him for an entire year in 2010, and, at that point of time, he was in the first year of BFA and had just come from Jammu and started doing his workshop with us. In the last 5 years, he has completed his BFA and MFA; he had his first solo show in Delhi. There is a group of people whom you should Google: ‘The Progressive Artists of Ladakh’. They have a Facebook page, there is a growing community. Over the last 8 years, LAMO has been doing an annual summer art camp and an autumn art camp. As a result, there are more people who want to study art, there are more people who want to study fine art and design. More will happen. Slowly, but it’ll happen. Like I said, what is important is acknowledging that there is a power equation, acknowledging that these are issues that have not been looked into before,acknowledging the gap and trying to work at it. It will not solve itself tomorrow, but it will solve itself over a period of time, and this is the hope that we continue to work with everyday—the hope that we take with us when we go back to the field.
Abeer Gupta, is currently director of Krishnakriti Foundation, Hyderabad. An alumnus of the National Institute of Design, India and Goldsmiths College, University of London, he taught full-time at Ambedkar University Delhi between 2014-18. His publications include, ‘The Visual and Material Culture of Islam in Ladakh’, in Visual Pilgrim, Mapping Popular Visuality and Devotional Media at Sufi Shrines and Other Islamic Institutions in South Asia, (2014), ‘Discovering the Self and Others in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh’ in Sarit K Chaudhuri & Sucheta Sen Chaudhuri, eds, Fieldwork in South Asia – Memories, Moments, and Experiences (Sage, 2014), and ‘A Sense of Place—Islam in the Western Himalaya’, in The Draw of the Hills, Latika Gupta, ed (Marg: Volume 69 Number 4, 2018). He is also director of Achi Association India.