It was in the ‘80s that the Delhi Archives department first began an oral history project by interviewing 56 personalities about the city, its history and changing nature. From politician Gulzari Lal Nanda, who served as the acting Prime Minister twice in the ‘60s, to Sushila Nayar, a close aide of Mahatma Gandhi — the interviews, stored in audio cassettes, detail their memories of Delhi.
After 56, however, the project was stopped. Reviving the project, the Delhi government launched the ‘Oral History Programme’ at the India International Centre Monday afternoon. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Delhi Archives department and the Ambedkar University (AUD). “We will add 100 more interviews in the next two years,” said Ajay Kumar Garg, director of Archives.
The launch was accompanied by a panel discussion with historian S Irfan Habib, author and journalist R V Smith, Professor Denys P Leighton from AUD, and former All India Radio programmer Usha Purie. It was moderated by historian Sohail Hashmi and the topic was ‘Mapping Delhi through Oral Histories, potential and possibilities’.
While Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who was supposed to inaugurate the programme, couldn’t make it, he said, “Through anecdotes, stories, songs and experiences, the archives will record lesser-known narratives of the public. The first phase of the initiative will map senior citizens’ connect with Delhi. The elderly are a treasure trove of stories, custodians of our history.”
Hashmi stressed on the need to “document since history is being re-written”.
In the backdrop of the Centre scrapping special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by modifying Article 370, Hashmi said, “that people like us being able to buy land there would result in the loss of linguistic, cultural history. It will be forgotten. We need to document.”
While Smith said, “oral history is not found in books but in galis and mohallas”, Purie commented on accessibility of archives. She said, “Once you document, also think of accessibility. Filmmakers, research scholars want access to such archives and so do common people just for keepsake. Will it come with a rate card or be free for all?”
Archivist Sanjay Garg said that the department aims to record 50 personalities — from Smith and Mahashay Dharampal Gulati of MDH spices to farmers, traders and teachers — this year.
“The project which began in the ‘80s stopped due to lack of resources and manpower. This is a revival of sorts. We have the 56 recordings and transcripts too. This project has a team of 20 and will be available on the Delhi Archives website free of cost,” he said.
Habib emphasised on the urgency to document as oral history “depends on people and if they disappear, the memories go away with them”.
He said, “We should have done this sooner but better late than never. While recording oral history, both the interviewer and the interviewee have to report honestly what they know.”
He added that unlike “written history,” oral history empowers the voiceless. “An illiterate person cannot write down what he knows but he can tell that story and that needs to be recorded.”