Our traditional understanding of an archive is that it is “a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.” For most people, the word archive evokes an image of dusty documents stuffed into boxes, stacked in a corner and forgotten --boxes that are opened only when some researcher wants to delve into actual documents about a period or a person to establish some fact.
1. A collection of items which form evidence of the activities of a person or institution.
2. A building where historical records are kept.
3. Papers that are old or used infrequently.
4.The act of adding records to an archive.
For me, the strongest memories of archives are of the basement of Elphinstone College Mumbai that was almost like home half a century ago (when I was working on my PhD dissertation) and of the central archives of the Reserve Bank of India, Pune (more recently, when I was researching for the book on Cooverji Bhabha). Both, for me, were veritable gold mines!
My understanding of the word expanded when I came across a quotation from Edgar Allen Poe who wrote: “Grey hair is an archive of the past.” It dawned on me that the most ordinary object carries a story of its own, waiting to be discovered and documented! This realisation came alive more recently when I came across a wonderful book by Arshia Ladak titled A Wardrobe Full of Stories.
“A saree has lived with a weaver’s family before becoming a part of mine. Every saree I wear has enmeshed within its design the fragrance of the flowers in the weaver’s wife’s hair, the sounds of his children playing with shuttles, his own perspiration, the tears in his prayers, the hopes in his dreams, and the aroma of freshly cooked rice that awaits while he puts the final knot into a long day’s work. I am reminded that each saree I buy places food on his table, a book in front of his children, and a stronger future for our country.”
Elsewhere she says : “Sarees are breathtaking not only for the striking skill and labour of the weavers who have produced them for centuries, but also because each saree is a knowledge the weavers have received over millennia, passed from hand to hand, loom to loom, as empires, languages, social mores and technologies grew and changed… Sarees weave us into history. They also weave history into us.”
This brief video about the book speaks for itself
The passion of the author has been so completely internalised by the researcher and editor Aurvi Sharma and by the designer Rachita Dalal, that the book is a treat to behold and to actually read. You linger over every page and notice the detailing – the blending of the visual with the text, the imaginative way in which the text is used to enhance the beauty of the displayed design of the saree.
And Aurvi, who garnered the amazing inputs – comprising not just images, but songs, quotations from various references (some going back to mythology) – really deserves all the compliments for providing such a vast canvas of information to the author.
She says: "The author had interviewed saree lovers from all walks of life. What emerged from the poring over the interviews was how distinct and personal a saree is to the wearer. A saree could be a mother's song, a myth, a fable, a mirror, home, the blue sky. So we treated each chapter like its own creative universe to evoke the innumerable meanings a saree holds "
Unfortunately, Arshia succumbed to cancer just a few weeks before the publication of the book but she continued to work on her dream, even as she was undergoing chemotherapy, speaks of her determination and grit to see her passion come alive.
She conducted 30+ interviews with saree lovers or restorers and weavers from across the country through those trying times! And was able to approve the entire conceptualisation – the finally laid out text, the design, select the sarees to be photographed, colour scheme, fonts – in fact, the implementation of her concept. All the ‘classics’ among sarees find a mention in the book – paithani from Maharashtra, ikkat from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, patola from Patan, bandhani from Saurashtra and Rajasthan, Parsi garas and, of course, kanjeevarams from Tamil Nadu and many, many more.