The Generation 1947 Project: Archiving Stories of India's Past

The Generation 1947 Project: Archiving Stories of India's Past
A Karachi Club membership card belonging to Mr. Manoobhai Doongursee, who left Karachi for India during the Partition. Image: The Citizens' Archive of India, Pushpa Bhatia's collection. Reproduced with the permission of The Citizens' Archive of India,
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Anywhere in the world, oral history and material memory are imperative to decoding the real picture of a place. It is these ordinary oral traditions that The Citizens’ Archive of India aims to digitally preserve as an integral part of our country’s heritage

Mallika Bhagat
August 07 , 2022
06 Min Read

“After I finished 6th grade, I was asked to leave my education by my family. But my mother and my aunt stood by me, and reiterated that if I wanted to study, I would. I was very afraid that my father and uncle would get angry, but my mother and aunt said that they’d handle it. This is how I got my education.” Mrs. Raviprabha Burman, now in her nineties, recalls how she was educated against all odds – her father and uncle opposed it, and later, so did the people of her caste and community. It was the women in her life who supported her and fought societal perceptions, in the 1930s, to ensure her education.

Lt. Rama Mehta, aged 16, trains to be part of the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army during World War II, Burma, c.1943. Image Courtesy: The Citizens' Archive of India, Rama Khandwala's collection.

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There are hundreds of stories like hers; some talk about the freedom movement, some of love. A generation that saw the most troubled times, India’s first citizens, have stories that have traversed years and now fear being lost. Anywhere in the world, oral history and material memory are imperative to decoding the real picture of a place. They are strong components in building up our history. It is these ordinary oral traditions that The Citizens’ Archive of India aims to digitally preserve as an integral part of our country’s heritage. “I grew up in a large joint family with grandparents telling us stories about the freedom movement. Asking parents and grandparents about their stories is what motivated me to be an oral historian. While it is an academic practice, we all look at history from a political perspective and there is only so much we can learn at school. We often don’t know how people lived during that time, and this is the last generation that can really tell us about 1947,” says Malvika Bhatia, the Archive Director at The Citizens’ Archive of India which records stories of ordinary Indians that have seen India become what it is today.

The primary idea of CAI is to make history relatable. “These stories are an important supplement to the history we learn. When children learn that their grandparents were part of the freedom movement, or about their lives during those years, they get curious and can learn about that period in a more nuanced manner,” Bhatia reflects on the purpose of CAI.

A page from Mr. Chaturbhuj Jasani's diary documenting the freedom struggle. Mr. Arun Bhatia has translated it into English. Mr. Jasani writes,

Founded by Rohan Parikh in 2016 with an aim to humanise history, The Citizens’ Archive of India’s flagship project is The Generation 1947 Project, which aims to archive oral history and material memory of people who witnessed life in pre-independent India, as well as the subsequent formative nation-building years. The project digitally preserves various records such as letters, newspapers, documents, personal pictures, historical pictures, and other memorabilia from this period.

Five years and 300 interviews later, the platform is buzzing with lesser-known tales. While some of the people are approached by the team at CAI, their loyal community ensures regular suggestions of people who would be willing to contribute anecdotes to the thriving digital archive. Intimate conversations about their personal lives, cultures and communities they grew up in, dominate the process of documenting their memories. But memory is fluid and often influenced by our personal experiences. How does the initiative sift through the entries and choose what goes into the archive? “People do get years wrong, and some other details. The people we interview are old, so we do crosscheck dates and everything that goes into the archive is tagged and has keywords. Over time, after multiple oral history interviews, we can look up events that may not have been documented formally as different interviews often check each other,” Bhatia explains, adding, “History is always told from a certain point of view, and memory is fluid, so certain discrepancies will crop up.”

 
 
 
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These stories, which have been inherited over years, and have travelled nations and borders, form a bridge to our common past. For the younger generation that is tech savvy, CAI has a presence on social media as well, where they share snippets of conversations in order to spark an interest in our shared history. “The reason we do social media is to get more stories! There are people who text us, asking us to speak to their grandparents or archive an old diary that they have. That is how we get more people to contribute to the archive. The older generation, however, is more keen on conversations, because for them these stories hold an element of nostalgia. Especially on Facebook, if we tag one person, many of their relatives and friends comment and discuss the story,” Bhatia says.

Mrs. Mithoo Coorlawala at her Graduation Ceremony, University of Cambridge, 1998. Image Courtesy: The Citizens' Archive of India, Mithoo Coorlawala's collection.

Another interesting aspect to digital archives is the space these platforms provide to women. “I find that women have very detailed and nuanced stories to tell, because often it is the first time someone has asked them these questions,” Bhatia tells us, as she wraps up the conversation with the story of Mrs Coorlawala, who is 104 years old now and one of the first people she interviewed. “Mrs Coorlawala went to Cambridge to pursue her education, but at that time, unlike men, women were not given degrees at the convocation. After a lot of agitation, the college began to give degrees to women on convocation as well, and to commemorate this moment, Mrs Coorlawala attended her convocation ceremony in 1998, 60 years later. That black and white picture of hers, in her 80s, wearing a graduation robe, is a sight to behold.”


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