Sunday, 24 September 2023

An Interesting Archive!

Our traditional understanding of an archive is that it is “a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.”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.

 The word ‘archive is hard to define, as it is used in various ways, depending on context. It can mean:

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.

Cover of the book

“Sarees are memory keepers,” according to the author. So the book brought home the fact that a saree is also an archive – for each one of us, who considers this garment as an essential piece of our lives, a saree carries so many of our personal memories. But a saree also carries its own tapestry of tales – of the craftsperson who wove it; to the design that may have been influenced by the diverse culture that has been the pride of our country; to the variety of the raw materials used, reflecting the state of resources available – cotton, silk, hemp, linen, etc. And, as Arshia Ladak wrote so evocatively:

“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.”

From the book, pages: 28-29

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.

Detailed explanation of a motif, page: 49

 As Rachita explained her experience of designing the book: “Every saree—woven, painted or embroidered—is a work of art. To create an art book using so many diverse works of art in thread was an invigorating creative challenge! To replicate the tactile nature of the textile, we made real things with our hands. We stamped and sewed and embroidered and painted and wove. We also showed the saree in a different light through photo concepts, in an interweaving of emotions and stories, to answer the question: What is the saree to you?”

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.

Some pages with songs, pages: 104-05 and 101

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 "

From the book, pages: 22-23 and 24-25

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.

From the book, pages: 126-27 and 128-29

This is a book which richly deserves to become compulsory reference for students of design. It is in league with some of the best books designed by late Dr Sanjeev Bothra, especially his books for the internationally acclaimed artist Dr Himmat Shah.

Photo credit:


Photo credit: Steta Publishers:

It is creditable that Shri Venkateshwar Somani Charitable Trust, Mumbai, published the book


Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Meticulous Lord Mountbatten

In the past few weeks, Lord Mountbatten’s name has been in the media in connection with the sengol that was installed in the new building of the Indian Parliament.

I want to share some archival documents to show how meticulous Lord Mountbatten was and how particular he was about maintaining official records and following procedures to a T.

The records that I refer to are two letters that Lord Mountbatten wrote to Cooverji H Bhabha, independent India’s first commerce minister who had earlier served as a minister in the Interim Government of India headed by Lard Wavell and later Lord Mountbatten. The original letters are available in the personal archives of the Bhabha family. I referred to these while doing the research and writing for Cooverji Bhabha’s biography by his daughter Rati Forbes. 

These are just two letters, a drop in the ocean of the voluminous archival materials available – of Lord Mountbatten as well as of the period. But I would like to share them for people to draw their own conclusions about the fact, or otherwise, of the sengol being presented to him by the priests of the Thiruvavaduthurai Mutt in Tamil Nadu and then to Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister.

Both the letters are written on the 9th of September 1947. The first one places on record the fact of Lord Mountbatten having “spoken with the Prime Minister on the telephone” about the appointment of Cooverji Bhabha as a member of the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet set up to deal with the post-Partition violence and riots. He asks Mr Bhabha to speak to the Prime Minister “before 8.0AM” and attend the Cabinet meeting at 10am.

The full text of the letter is as follows:
"Dear Mr Bhabha,
I have spoken to the Prime Minister on the telephone to-night &obtained his very willing concurrence to your appointment as the Chairman of the Delhi Emergency Committee.
I told him I would ask you to get in touch with him before 8.0AM tomorrow as he was proposing personally to inquire in the morning why the Emergency Committee of the the Cabinet's orders about forming the Delhi Emergency Committee had not been carried out. 
He agreed to consult you before taking further action if you got in touch with him.
Please come to the meeting at Government House at 10.0AM
Yours sincerely
Mountbatten of Burma"

Notice in the documents, that the address Viceroy’s House has been crossed out by pen and Government House has been typed above. This reflects not only the shortage of paper in the country at that time, but also how mindful Lord Mountbatten was about not wasting resources. Notice also that he has written on both sides of the paper. Perhaps he was following Gandhiji who used to pen letters and notes on pieces of scrap paper! Also, notice that Mountbatten records the conversation (and the decision taken) with Nehru in his own handwriting without waiting for it to be dictated and typed.

The second letter is also dated 9th September 1947 and is written after the Cabinet meeting held at 10am. Lord Mountbatten conveys to Mr Bhabha the decision to set up the “Delhi Emergency Committee” at which the Home Minister – Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – had agreed that Mr Bhabha should be nominated the chairman. He asks Mr Bhabha to “please arrange to preside at the first meeting… which is being held this afternoon."

The full text of the letter is:
Dear Mr Bhabha,
At the meeting of the Emergency Committee of the Cabinet this morning we decided to set up a "Delhi Emergency Committee" to grip the situation in Delhi.
After the meeting, I consulted the Home Minister who agreed that a Cabinet Minister should take the chair and grip the situation and he has agreed that you should be nominated. Will you therefore please arrange to preside at the first meeting with the Chief Commissioner, Sub Area Commander and I.G. of Police, etc., which is being held this afternoon.
Thereafter will you please attend the Emergency Committee Meetings every morning at 10.0AM here -- as the Delhi Committee Representative & arrange future Delhi Committee meetings for each afternoon.
Yours sincerely
Mountbatten of Burma"

Could a person, who recorded the decisions and events so meticulously, have not recorded receiving the sengol from the priests of a well-known Mutt and returned it forthwith for onward transmission to the Prime Minister?