Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Archived Letters: A Treasure Trove for Biographies

I have grappled with the acute shortage of source materials while writing biographies, particularly of people from the latter half of the 20th century, because telecommunications technology led to the demise of letter writing. And also because most Indian families do not preserve letters, let alone archive them. Letters are such a rich resource for historians and biographers not only because they provide evidence for events in the narrative of the life one is reconstructing but also because they, often, give you a glimpse of the social and political issues of those times. The book by Sheela Reddy is evidence, if ever one were needed, of how rich and credible the narrative can be, if such resources were available.

The book is based on a bunch of private letters preserved by Padmaja and Leilamani (spelt Leelamani, by some) Naidu, daughters of Sarojini Naidu, who was a close family friend of Ruttie Petit’s father (a fabulously rich baronet, Sir Dinshaw Petit, a prominent Parsi mill-owner of Bombay), and, later, Ruttie’s role model and confidante. Ruttie was a prolific letter writer; Sarojini and her daughters were the recipients. Apparently, Sheela stumbled upon them in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). Padmaja Naidu “had the foresight and imagination to collect and preserve her family’s vast and lively correspondence... and put it at the disposal of the curious in the NMML archives.” It was pure fortuitousness that, while doing further research, Sheela found a temple trustee in Hyderabad (where the Naidu family lived) who helped her “locate Padmaja Naidu’s forgotten papers and photographs gathered in a cloth bundle and locked up in a dusty cupboard inside a dharmashala in a sabji mandi.”

The bundles contained not only letters about the Jinnah couple written by the members of the Naidu family to each other, but also several letters written by Ruttie to Sarojini Padmaja and Leilamani. She was very close to the Naidu family who, in later years, appear to be her only source of emotional support.  Sarojini Naidu also knew and greatly admired Jinnah; so, in some of her letters to her daughters, she does have some observations on what could have been his thoughts and motivations for some of his personal as well as political decisions.

What the author has done remarkably well is interpreting the content of the letters bringing to life the solitary, misunderstood Jinnah and the lonely, wistful Ruttie, weaving deftly the social and political ethos and issues of the times without losing focus on the main narrative. It would have been so easy to stray into a description, or even analysis, of the tumultuous events, the ferment of ideologies and ideas, and the number of important and interesting people that criss-crossed the lives of this star-crossed couple.

However, it is not just access to the resources that makes her book unputdownable; it is the author’s intensive and meticulous research, reflected in the nearly 50 pages of notes (of the 421-page book) that are as interesting and engaging as the story of the ‘marriage that shook India’. However, as a researcher and social historian, I would have preferred the citations and references as endnotes with cross-references in the main text. But perhaps because of her long experience as a journalist, the author did not want to ‘clutter’ the narrative with reference numbers. I also missed an index.

Since I have reviewed the book for Moneylife,  I will not go into the subject matter of the book. Here, I will share some of my views as a social historian and biographer on the use of archived letters. 

With such a treasure trove of resources, I wonder why the author/publisher did not use the letters as images. These would have not only added to the design dimension of the book but perhaps brought the characters to life more effectively. As an example, reproduced below is the last letter that Ruttie wrote to Jinnah. It is as poignant a missive as a heartbroken 28-year-old could have written in the second decade of the past century. She wrote it on 5 October 1928, on board SS Rajputana on which she travelled to India after she had been nursed back to life in Paris by Jinnah. Yet, they decided that they would go their separate ways. 

She writes, “When one has been as near to reality – (which after all is death) as I have been dearest, one only remembers the beautiful and tender moments and all the rest becomes a half veiled mist of unrealities. Try and remember me beloved as the flower you picked and not the flower you tread (sic) upon. I have suffered much because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to (sic) the measure of my love... had I loved you a little less, I might have remained with you. Only after one has created a very beautiful blossom, one does not drag it through the mire. The higher you set your ideal, the lower it falls... I have loved you my darling as it is given to few men to be loved. I only beseech you that our tragedy which began with love should also end with it. Darling, good night and goodbye.
PS. I had written to you from Paris with the intent of posting the letter here but felt that I’d rather write to you afresh from the fullness of my heart. R.”

Sheela has quoted the letter as text. Notice the difference when you see it as an image in her handwriting – the tenderness that it oozes.


There is no shortage of drama to the story of this May & December marriage, especially when the protagonists are MA Jinnah and Ruttie Petit. Twenty-four years older to her and a friend of her father, Jinnah was a leading Muslim barrister in Bombay and, by then, already a powerful politician. The only daughter of Sir Petit, Ruttie was a girl of 16 when they fell in love, so pretty, vivacious and fashionable that she was known as the ‘flower of Bombay’.

Sheela gives a glimpse of how the politics of the times as well as his personal life gradually transformed Jinnah from being a liberal Muslim (and a ham-eating, cigar smoking, alcohol-drinking to boot, one who sent his sister to a missionary school, where she was the first Muslim girl to be admitted), to a more staunch and conservative one.

Perhaps the romance, and the marriage, was doomed because of the huge age difference between them. She was so vivacious, full of energy to explore and live life to the fullest and he was so seriously involved in the politics of the times. She truly wanted to be by his side and participate to the fullest in his political journey– something that was not viewed kindly by the Muslim community that gradually became Jinnah’s main constituency as the Home Rule Movement and then the Indian National Congress changed gears after Gandhi’s emergence on the Indian political scene. Unused to playing second fiddle, Jinnah became more and more involved in strategising with the Muslims, to the exclusion of Ruttie. So in this triangular love story, she lost out to her competitor – politics and Jinnah’s overarching ambition. Sheela says that Jinnah “drove her mad with his inhuman lack of all emotion, or so it seemed, and his punctilious sense of duty, as if she was no more to him than a duty he must discharge... (she got) the sinking feeling that she was being erased as an individual” (p282). Within a few years, their meteor of love had extinguished itself.

Ruttie died on 20 February 1929, her 29th birthday, alone in a house where she stayed after moving out from the Jinnah residence, consuming an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving her daughter, Dina, and her inconsolable husband, who never married again.

Sheela ends her book with a sentence that makes one’s heart go out to Jinnah, since she has so poignantly narrated the story of his failed love. She says: “The effects of what he had done only sunk in later. Jinnah wept when he saw the refugees in the country he had just created almost single-handedly. But the tears were less for the refugees that for what he had just done – destroyed yet again that which he loved the most.”

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Capturing Memories of a Family Business

As a student of social history, I have for long been advocating the need for documentation and archiving, especially in the context of Indian businesses which have witnessed a complete transformation in their environment.

With nearly half a century of research experience, I am acutely aware of the paucity of archival materials that can be used as evidence for writing biographies and corporate histories. Hence, I take every opportunity to persuade business organisations, as well as NGOs, to preserve documents that would authenticate future historical writing.

Often, organisations and people unthinkingly discard correspondence, files and even photographs. This has become more rampant now as physical space (real estate) has become more expensive or because no one has the time to sift through and organise old stuff. History is not a priority; future planning is. Also, with changes in technology for communications having undergone a metamorphosis, much of the exchange of information and views is no longer by way of letters; it is being done on the telephone or on emails – media that can be easily obliterated. This aspect of technology had affected ‘collective memory’ negatively. And people have, so far, not started using digital technology as extensively as they should (or could), to preserve the past.

Hence, when I got an opportunity, in 2007, to initiate the process of creating oral history records for a family business, I took up the project eagerly – as much out of my belief in the need for building up such resources as for the demonstrative effect it might have on other corporates.

Forbes Marshall was a 61-year-old business, in 2007, and offered ‘ideal material’ for creation of oral history records (OHRs). The company began with trading, ventured into import-substitution manufacturing and now operates at the frontiers of technology. Fortunately, the promoters as well as many members of the old team were still available for being interviewed and their memories were not covered by the mists of time.

What Is an OHR
For those who may not be familiar, oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally comprises a well-prepared interviewer questioning the selected person and recording the exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarised, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatisation or other form of public presentation. An OHR does not include random taping, nor does it refer to recorded speeches, personal diaries on tape, or other sound recordings that lack the dialogue between interviewer and interviewee.

The project commenced in October 2008. Over the next two years, I did 53 interviews; running into 2,687 minutes (nearly 45 hours) of audio recordings, that take up some 1,241MB of digital storage space. These were submitted on seven CDROMs along with printed copies of the transcripts as well as the soft copies (as Word files which were converted into pdf documents) for ease of access. These run into nearly 700 pages; organised chronologically by the date of the interview.

At the stage that I undertook this project, the technology for recording, transcribing, and even organising the ‘data’ with keywords and indexing it into searchable databases, was not what it is today. So the transcriptions were done manually! Today, software is available to do it all.

Anticipating the difficulty that future users might face in going through such voluminous data, at the beginning of each transcript, I provided keywords and concepts that could be searched on the Word/pdf files. I also gave the cross-reference details of the duration of audio recording and the transcript on each page of the printed document. This was to facilitate the user to go to the exact minute, or second, of the recorded interview for, say, an audio clip for a voice-over in a film, rather than having to listen to the entire recording. Users working towards creating publishable documents and wanting to pick up an entire quote from the ORH would not need to word-process from the recording; these could be just copy-pasted.

Objective of the Project
My concept note for the project mentioned:The exercise could result in stories, anecdotes, case-studies and other kinds of documentation that can be then shared within the organisation as well as with the outside audiences, as the case may require or permit.”

How I Went about It
I began with recording the memories of some of the oldest ‘associates’ of FM – promoters, directors, employees, consultants, bankers, technologists, etc, to record their memories of the growth/development of the company from its earliest times. This involved the following activities:
  • Identifying the persons to be interviewed and preparing their bio-sketch from HR records; this enabled me to contextualise the OHR and obtain focused information.
  • Doing the audio-recorded interviews – sometimes multiple -- depending on the time available from the person and the ‘information-richness’ of the interviewee.
  • Transcribing the recordings, extracting the knowledge content of the interview, and preparing a detailed index for each interview.
  • Extracting embedded knowledge.
  • Creating a separate database /catalogue of these tapes/CDs with detailed content index – which could be managed by the company’s library.
My responsibility ended with the penultimate point above. Since then, FM has created another series of OHRs which have also been used for writing the history of the company. The history has now been published as a book titled: A Different Business: The Forbes Marshall Story.

That the project achieved its objective – of “result(ing) in stories, anecdotes, case-studies and other kinds of documentation that can be then shared within the organisation as well as with the outside audiences” – is amply visible in the many, many quotes from the OHRs in the book.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Creating Visual Corporate Identity: A Personal Memoire

This piece, though autobiographical, contains ‘archival’ documentation of my earliest experience in creation of corporate identity. The documentation may be useful for students of design interested in history, especially since it is not available in the public domain, as yet.

It was sometime in 1976. HT Parekh had retired as the chairman of ICICI in 1976. (Today’s generation may not even know that ICICI was, at that stage, a development bank; the acronym stood for the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India.) After retirement, he wanted to pursue his dream to set up a company that would provide housing finance to individuals. No institutional loans for housing were available then in India; and all lending was capital-geared, not income-geared. It was a path-breaking effort.

He had chosen a small team from ICICI who would assist him in all the preliminary steps for incorporating this new company. My responsibilities were related to what was loosely known then as ‘corporate communications’ which involved anything from writing & research to supervising the printing and stationery design! Once the company was registered and the name clearance received for Housing Development Finance Corporation of India (HDFC), the first among my tasks was designing the letterhead and stationery.

At that stage, ‘branding’ and ‘corporate identity’ had not yet become the buzzwords that they are now. There was barely any ‘design thinking’ on this aspect among corporate chieftains of those times. So when I asked HTP (as Mr Parekh was generally referred to), whether he wanted me to develop a symbol or a logo for the company, he looked at me quizzically and said: “I don’t know the difference. Do what you think is necessary.” And with his Buddha-like smile, he uttered his signature words: “Do your worst! Come back to me only with the final product, if you are personally satisfied with it.” That was the kind of freedom he gave to those of us whose professional judgement he trusted.

There were two outstanding designers in Bombay whose names I had heard frequently in advertising circles then: Yeshwant Chaudhary and Sudarshan Dheer. I just so happened that I could contact Mr Chaudhary first, as Mr Dheer was out of town on that particular day.

Yeshwant Chaudhary, a brilliant alumnus of the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Arts (Bombay), who had done his post-graduate studies from the Central School of Art and Design (London) and worked for CIBA (International, Switzerland), had returned to India and set up his own firm Communica Corporate Communications. Our preliminary meeting went off so well that I decided to work with him on the assignment.

My brief to Mr Chaudhary was simply that we were working towards the establishment of a new company that would offer a new financial product for the Indian market. Those familiar with the business environment of the 1970s might recall that financial instruments were not even perceived as ‘products’ in those days. To explain the concept and the ‘attributes’ of the product meant several discussions with Mr Chaudhary. Finally, my brief to Mr Chaudhary was: 
1) Since the company was looking at retail finance, he should work on a symbol. In India, a country of many languages, a logotype of HDFC, an abbreviation of the name in English, would convey little. 
2) The symbol should be so powerful that it should establish the product, namely, housing finance, which itself was new for India.

We then went into long discussions on the philosophy that the company would represent. In those days, ‘mission statements’ or ‘vision statements’ were not fashionable. So, my elucidation of the intended philosophy of the organisation was derived from the many, many discussions I had had with HTP on the subject. The parameters of the philosophy were: 
1) HDFC would strengthen the financial infrastructure of the country by catering for a ‘felt need’ of a large, emergent middle class. 
2) Steeped as he was in the philosophy of development finance, HTP said his organisation would always be ‘development-oriented’. 
3) The organisation would always be customer-focused and based on ethical practices, especially since the real estate sector in India was mired in practices that were to the contrary. 
4) The business of the organisation was predicated on the belief that the average Indian borrower takes repayment liability seriously, if the credit-provider was not ‘extractive’ and understood the borrower’s capacity to repay. 
5) HDFC would encourage developments in housing technology and skills. 
6) Since HDFC would channel the savings and investments of the ordinary public, it would keep these stakeholders’ interest in mind. 
7) It would be a publicly-owned, professionally managed company, along the lines of ICICI that HTP had nurtured for 20 long years at its helm and prevented it from near extinction.

The combination of symbol and logotype that Mr Chaudhary developed is now a part of the annals of visual communications. His treatment of four panels that constituted the symbol was as bricks. According to him, these stood for ‘Housing, Environmental Development, Finance and Recycling of Resources’. One panel was in red, as he wanted it to stand out; it indicated Finance and was abbreviated as F in the acronym – that was also in red. We deliberately chose to use the logo in lower case rather than capital letters for several reasons. One, HTP’s approach was always diminutive. He was not an aggressive, chest-thumping banker and chose to let performance speak for itself. Two, the organisation was introducing a new concept; it was taking small baby steps. Three, lower case letters lent themselves better in execution of a composite of the symbol and logo. Mr Chaudhary’s design had the symbol and the logotype as one unit; the symbol above and the logotype below.
When Mr Chaudhary and I went to make the presentation to HTP, we entered his room with trepidation. I was nervous because it was my first assignment – to create a visual corporate identity for an organisation. And, perhaps, Mr Chaudhary was anxious because he would be meeting the legendary HTP in person for the first time and also because he had based his entire execution of the identity on the basis of his interaction only with me! For safety’s sake, Mr Chaudhary had carried some of the alternatives to the combination of the symbol and the logotype. But he need not have done that. After ordering coffee for us, HTP asked for the design, had one look – I could see that he liked what he saw. And then, he asked me: “Are you happy with this?” On hearing an answer in the affirmative, he said: “OK; leave only this folder with me; I will show it to the rest of my team. How soon can you get the stationery printed?” Mr Chaudhary was incredulous. He could not believe the speed of decision-making! But that was HTP. And, as they say, the rest is history.

HDFC’s corporate identity won the CAG (Commercial Artists’ Guild) Award in that year. Today, this organisation is called Communication Arts Guild. The name change occurred somewhere in the 1980s; among the people behind the name change were Mr Dheer and Mr Chaudhary who argued that ‘commercial artists’ almost had a pejorative connotation! At one time, CAG Awards were the most coveted recognition of professional talent in Indian advertising industry. Now, the organisation has nearly faded into oblivion.

HDFC used the information – of winning the CAG Award – in a corporate advertisement. The copy of the advertisement ‘explained’ the corporate identity. It read: “the four bricks together project the four fold activities of HDFC i. e. Housing, Environmental Development, Finance and recycling of Resources. In the emblem, one of the bricks is red. Similarly, in the logotype of HDFC ‘F’ is also red. Because F stands for Finance.” The main message was: “Remember us as the Housing Finance people. We give housing loans to individuals, co-operative societies and corporate bodies.”

Image courtesy HDFC corporate communications department.

I had mentioned this experience in a commemorative issue of ICICI’s internal newsletter Swayam.

It is a tribute to Yeshwant Chaudhary’s work that, in the 40 years since, HDFC has made only marginal changes in his design – they use HDFC now in capital letters! The first change was made in 1984 and the second and third in quick succession, in 1994 and 1998. These images are reproduced below.

Image courtesy HDFC corporate communications department.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Pointers for Other Historians

An example of sharing archival information for other historians

Among the factors that contribute to character building is the influence of teachers and mentors. This was especially so in the previous century when the means and methods of communication were limited as was social and physical mobility that are very necessary for exchange of ideas and evolution of social & professional ethos. To trace these influences on Dr LM Sanghvi’s approach to medical practice, I looked for information on his alma mater, Grant Medical College, Bombay where he studied for his MBBS degree (1932-1937).

It had several teachers who left an indelible mark on Dr Sanghvi’s work ethic as well as worldview. ‘They taught by percept,’ is what he would often remark, when asked to recollect the impact of his teachers and mentors. Since these questions were posed to him when he was in his 80s, he could recollect the names of only some of those with whom he had worked with closely. These included: 
Dr SR Moolgavkar, Major General SL Bhatia and Dr A Karmally.

A search for the other faculty members at Grant Medical College led to the archives section of Bombay University Library located at the Rajabai Tower building. I found some volumes of the Bombay University Calendar that the University used to publish, in the days of yore. These calendars contain extremely valuable information on various aspects of the University’s administration, its affiliated colleges, the courses offered, the faculty at each college, examination results of various subjects, with a complete list of successful candidates along with the merit list. This enabled me compile a list of his batch-mates! But I could not get any information in the public domain either on the other faculty members or his class-mates.

SR Moolgaokar: Prof of Surgery &Clinical Surgery
Lt Col SS Vazifdar: Prof of Medicine
Lt Col WC Spackman: Prof of Midwifery & Diseases of Women & Children
VL Parmar: Prof of Operative Surgery
Lt Col Sir JN Duggan: Prof of Ophthalmology
PV Gharpure: Prof of Pathology
Jal R Patel: Prof of Pharmacology
Major SL Bhatia: Prof of Physiology & Histology
RC Motwani: Prof of Anatomy
Major SB Mehta: Prof of Medical Jurisprudence
PA Dalal: Prof of Bacteriology
DV Pandit: Prof of Dentistry
CA Amesur: Prof of ENT Diseases
EJ Ramdas: Prof of Anaesthetics
HA Maniar: Prof of Skin Diseases
PM Desai: Prof of Electro-Therapeutics
HD Khote: Prof of Hygiene
Rao Saheb RS Tembe: Prof of Mental Diseases

Fortunately, some of the calendars pertained to the years when Dr Sanghvi was a student and I could obtain a complete list of the faculty in 1936-37 – his final year at the Grant Medical College.
These documents are too precious to be taken out of the premises and can be accessed only with special permission. But the University was kind enough to give us permission to photograph some of the relevant pages within the premises. Fortunately, one could do so using a mobile phone (this was in 2013).

I used some of the photographs in the book to share with future researchers who may possibly be looking for information on aspects of the history of medical education in India in the previous century.

The cover page of Bombay University Calendar for 1936-38 which was published in 1941.

The page on the left lists the teaching faculty at the Grant Medical College for 1936-37, the years when LM Sanghvi completed  his Final MBBS.

Has LM Sanghvi's name in the list of candidates who passed with first class in the first MBBS Examination 1933; he stood fourth in order of merit.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Contextualising the Contribution

This is an example of how archives assist historians

That Dr LM Sanghvi was interested in sharing his knowledge through teaching and publication of his research was widely known and recognised. And there was enough evidence of this in the familys archives that had many of his published papers. But the historian in me wanted to contextualise his contribution to Indian medical research.

He began to publish research papers as early as in 1950. The first six of his research papers were published in Indian journals and because his specialisation at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine dealt with tropical diseases – typhoid, allergies and gastroenteritis.

After he returned from his training in the US for chest and heart diseases (cardiology was subsumed under that specialisation until then), Dr Sanghvi began to send his research papers for publication in medical journals published from the US. In 1956, the first of his papers was published in an international journal – the American Heart Journal (AHJ, 52: 908, 1956). In that year and the next, his papers were also published in Circulation and AMA Arch NeurPsych and AMA Arch Path – these latter journals were brought out by the American Medical Association.

Since the scenario for Indians to undertake research, as well publish it in international journals was very different from what prevails now, as a biographer, I wanted to find out how many Indians’ research had been published by AHJ before Dr Sanghvi’s in 1956. Unfortunately, I could not get any information from AHJ, despite repeated email requests.

In 1958, Dr Sanghvi published the first of many papers in the British Heart Journal (BHJ) My experience with BHJ about getting information on their earliest Indian contributors was different; and it brought out, once again, how much of a help archives are to historians. Though I did not receive any reply to my emails to them on the subject, the availability of online archives of BHJ enabled me to compile the information.

BHJ is the official journal of the British Cardiac Society and has been published since 1939. It has an online archive of all issues since inception. The page lists all the issues, by year. And when you click on the year, you can view the content pages of all the issues for that year. That online archive enabled me search the contents pages and find out how many Indians had published their papers in the journal before Dr Sanghvi.

The first Indian to have a paper published in the Journal was Dr JB Mehta but he was with the Lambeth Hospital in London. The two Indian doctors who preceded Dr Sanghvi in the publication of their research/case studies in the BHJ were: Dr Rustom Jal Vakil (of KEM Hospital, Bombay) in 1949 and Dr AN Sengupta (of Nilratan Sircar Medical College, Calcutta) in 1954. Both these institutions had a history of nearly half a century; SMS Medical College (Jaipur) was not even a decade old in 1958 when Dr Sanghvi’s paper was published in BHJ.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Archiving Family Memorabilia: Contributing to Business History

This is an edited version of the text of my introductory remarks for a panel discussion on: “Profit from the Past: The Power of Family and Business Archiving”, held on August 9, 2016 at Mumbai, organised by Asset Vantage.
As a student of development administration since 1965, I have documented the processes of change – in societies, organisations and individuals – and analysed the factors that influence these processes. In these endeavours, I have dealt with archives – good bad and indifferent – at academic institutions, business organisations, government, non-profit organisations, and families.

After half a century of research experience, I have come to the conclusion that we Indians have little sense of history, even though we have such a rich and long tradition as a society and culture. I find this trait especially inexplicable, since I come from Rajasthan – a land where families and dynasties employed charans and bhaats to compile and narrate their histories. This trait of ours has especially affected the subject of business history.

I am sure all of us have a wealth of memories which we consider far more valuable than all the other wealth that we may have made in our lifetime. And it is a wealth we are ever willing to share with our dear ones. What this wealth of memories is to individuals, archives are to institutions and organisations. They are the non-capitalised wealth of organisations. They provide evidence on which narratives are based. They comprise objects and materials that represent events, people and developments in the journey of an organisation.

But without getting into too much academic discourse about the discipline of archiving, let us briefly understand what the word archives refer to.

As a noun, an archive refers to a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, an institution, or a group of people. Constituents of the noun archive could be: documents, letters, personal diaries, ledgers, photographs, audio recordings, videos, artefacts, and digital materials on social media, etc.

As a verb, archiving refers to the task of placing or storing something in an organised collection. Constituents of the verb archiving include: creation of archives, which comprises a) Selection process; and b) Identification of the information content of the resource. It then covers organising, storage and preservation of those resources and developing a retrieval or search system. Those whose work is described by the verb are, today, a highly specialised profession.

Most people or organisations want to document their biographies/histories for specific events – when they reach important milestones. So the exercise is always event-led or event-based. When I was in the corporate world, I have dealt with a ‘brochure’ that was published at the end of a decade of operations, and a book while celebrating the silver jubilee of the organisation. Two of the biographies I have worked on were published to mark the birth centenary of individuals.

The first task is, of course, sifting through the materials. The task is generally so humongous and so time-consuming that most people want to postpone it. In organisations, it is so thankless a task that no one, other than perhaps the librarian, is assigned the function. And, unless the person has an interest in history, he or she does the task rather grudgingly. But one realises the importance of such a collection only when one wants to write a history or a biography. Without such resources, these publications turn out to be just brochures and the biographies are just hagiographies! I have had to turn down several such assignments because there was a lack or archival materials to build a narrative based on facts — not just hearsay.

I will not go into the details of ‘how’ to archive because that is not my specialisation. But, as a social historian, I would like to emphasise that, unless you create the archives for your family or organisation, you are obliterating a part of our history. I firmly believe that all of us are living through such fascinating times, that if we do not document our experiences and store them in a way that the future generations may have access to them, and learn from them, we are not doing justice to ourselves as well as to the next generation. And, while technology has made letters and other forms of written documentation almost obsolete, it offers so many easy methods to create, to store, to retrieve and to share, that we have just no excuse for not performing this task.

I have shared some of experiences — of using archives and creating narratives from archival objects by way of examples. These are: Institutional Archives; Interpreting Archival Resources; Enhancing Family ArchivesThe Brick that Launched HDFC; Family Archiving: Dr LM Sanghvi and the Duncan Medal. All the examples illustrate the availability of an archival resource and how a social historian puts the information content of that resource in its context by researching on that content.

Some of the books showcased demonstrate the way a historian draws information from, say, letters —about the life and living conditions of that period. These books also bring to life how archival materials can be used as design elements.

The topic of oral history has acquired special importance in the current times as we seem to have moved away from committing our thoughts to pen and paper and rely more and more on oral communication. The importance of recorded interviews was poignantly brought out by Voices from the Inner Courtyard – the biography of Leela Somani. For writing the book, I had recorded my interviews with her husband and her daughter-in-law both of whom passed away a few years after the book was released. Those oral history records have become an invaluable part of the family’s archives today.

If you are hesitant about sharing your experiences by putting your thoughts on paper, please create oral histories by keeping audio-recorded personal diaries. Technology enables you to protect your privacy and to preserve these records. Imagine how much you would be contributing to the discipline of business history of this country.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Researching Archival Objects

This is an example of creating a narrative through research on the basis of the content of an archival object.

Among the documents available in the Sanghvi family’s archival collection was a letter from the Assistant University Registrar dated 30th August 1932. The letter was an intimation to LM Sanghvi that he had been awarded the Dr Tribhovandas Motichand Shah Scholarship for pursuing his medical education. The value of the Scholarship was Rs285/- per year for a period of five years, payable half-yearly, commencing from the 1st of April in 1932.

The Scholarship was instituted at the University of Bombay to commemorate the contribution of Dr Tribhovandas Motichand Shah to Indian medical practice. It was clear that he must have been a path-breaking medical practitioner of his times to have a scholarship instituted in his name. 

The historian in me had to find out more about this doctor. And what I found was a fascinating story.

Dr Tribhovandas Motichand Shah was the Chief Medical Officer of Junagadh in 1889. He was a pioneer of plastic surgery in India. Apparently, he had documented over a hundred cases treated by him in four years. He gave minute details of the operations he performed and discussed the advantages of forehead rhinoplasty, a plastic surgery procedure for “correcting and reconstructing the form, restoring the functions and aesthetically enhancing the nose.” He was among the first surgeons in India to use anaesthesia. Until then, there was no mention of anaesthesia in reported Indian medical cases. Apparently, patients used to be given wine to drink before surgery! Dr Tribhovandas Shah was a legend; it was said that “Kalu cuts the nose and Tribhovan reconstructs it.” Kalu was a local dacoit of that time who had an unusual signature for his dacoities; he used to cut off people’s noses after he had looted them. And, obviously, those he looted were well-off enough to go in for plastic surgery by Dr Tribhovandas Shah! 

Some sources say that the name of the dacoit was Kadu Makrani. To take revenge against the Junagadh State for punishing the informers of the state he used the popular method of punishment prevalent then; he used to cut the noses of these people. The nose in Indian society has been a symbol of dignity and respect throughout centuries. Naak-kata or nakata is one who has no self-respect or dignity. And it was common to hear someone say 'if I cannot deliver on my promise, I will cut off my nose!' (Main apni naak katwa doonga) In ancient times, amputation of nose was frequently done as a punishment for criminals, war prisoners or people who indulged in adultery. The practice of rhinoplasty began as a result of the need to reconstruct the external nose and later developed into a full-fledged specialisation. Dr Tribhovandas Shah is credited with the development of rhinoplasty as a modern science in India in the 19th century.