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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:


IMAGE 1 – The Poster of 7 Islands and a Metro, the artwork is by Tushar Joag

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.


IMAGE 2 – The Calendar for Liberty Theatre, 1949 for Project Cinema City, Abeer Gupta

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.


IMAGE 3 – The Khanqah and Imambara at Chochot Gongma, Abeer Gupta from Heid Icon

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’.


IMAGE 4 – The Calendar for Agfa, 1967 for Project Cinema City, Abeer Gupta

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.


IMAGE 5 – The Pherans, Witness to Paradise, Singapore Biennale 2016, Abeer Gupta

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.



IMAGE 6 – a collage which illustrates the following para.

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.


IMAGE 7 – Mother Spindle by Chemat Dorjay, placed in front of the display of capes and shoes at the Chansa, the