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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

An exhibition presented by The Citizens’ Archive of India shares personal memories of India’s ‘first citizens’

Burman isn’t a celebrated figure in Indian history but her story is inspiring nevertheless. It is tales like hers that CAI intended to share when it launched in 2016.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul |
Updated: November 13, 2019 8:41:13 am
The Citizens’ Archive of India, CAI, India's first citizens, India's first citizens digital exhibition, digital exhibitions, Indian Express Suman Desai with her Mercedes in Bombay in the ’60s. (Photo Source: The Citizens’ Archive of India)

They never went seeking the extraordinary but as the team of The Citizens’ Archive of India (CAI) started to chronicle the stories of India’s ‘first citizens’, they realised that every ordinary story had an extraordinary element. For example, the story of Raviprabha Burman’s education is also one of a strong-willed progressive woman. As the CAI website states, Burman, 92, grew up in Mathura during the British rule. It was a time when women’s education was not only uncommon but also unpopular among locals. However, against all odds and the wishes of her father, Burman’s uneducated mother sent her to school. This battle on Burman’s behalf was later fought by her uneducated husband’s mother, who made sure that her daughter-in-law completed her masters.

Burman isn’t a celebrated figure in Indian history but her story is inspiring nevertheless. It is tales like hers that CAI intended to share when it launched in 2016. Three years and 230 interviews later, the digital archive project is holding its first exhibition. Titled “Life As They Knew It: Stories from India’s First Citizens”, it will showcase select stories from the archive at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road on November 14 and 15.

The Citizens’ Archive of India, CAI, India's first citizens, India's first citizens digital exhibition, digital exhibitions, Indian Express An undated photograph of Doongursee Shyamji Joshi with the Governor of Sind, as they inspect the Karachi Panjrapole. (Photo Source: The Citizens’ Archive of India)

Through the exhibition, Archive Director Malvika Bhatia hopes to attract potential donors for the project, which they intend to expand to other cities as well. “The interviews are the easy part, where we get to know the people, listen to their stories. After the interview, we transcribe, sometimes translate, and give them keywords and a theme. It’s a lot of hard work,” says Bhatia, adding that they have recorded interviews in Hindi, English, Marathi, Gujarati, Kutchhi and Tamil so far.

Founded by Rohan Parikh, managing director of Apurva Natvar Parikh Group, CAI has been chronicling oral histories through eyewitness accounts and personal narratives. These are collected through interviews and fill the gap between written records and lived experiences. The archive attempts to videograph the interviews and also collect photographs of each subject. Over the last two years, CAI has tapped into the memories of over 200 people who have seen the country become what it is today, in order to inform our understanding of history beyond what we read in textbooks.

The Citizens’ Archive of India, CAI, India's first citizens, India's first citizens digital exhibition, digital exhibitions, Indian Express Mohammad Anis Shaikh shows the CAI team a ticket for Mughal-e-Azam that he has saved from 1960 (Photo Source: The Citizens’ Archive of India)

As custodians of these stories, the team at CAI is cautious when dealing with the digital medium. At the same time, they want to be as accessible as possible. “The idea is to expand our archive and also control access. We hope to build an online catalogue where we will provide a theme to each interview and give access on request,” adds Bhatia.

The exhibition will be a mix of interviews, photographs and quotes from the interviews. Eleven videos will also be showcased. Bhatia explains that the selection was made on the basis of versatility of content. “We were very keen to have a theme for the exhibition at first, but then we realised the theme of our project is quite interesting. We do have sections. For instance, there is one where we have showcased exhibits of people talking about their early years.”

While each interview in the archive looks at personal experiences and memories, they are never approached from a political angle. Many of these are thus unintentional albeit interesting commentaries on caste, class and culture of the times. Explaining their approach, Bhatia says, “Most of them have a sound reason for their beliefs and the archive does not intend to question their belief.”

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