Found Objects: From Colonial Libraries to Postcolonial Archives

By Sravanthi Kollu. Sravanthi is a Postdoctoral Associate at Kilachand Honors College, Boston University. She writes on literature, history, and community with a focus on colonial and postcolonial Telugu literature and South India.

Behind every historical account of South India lies a story of tattered archives. Artefacts, manuscripts, pamphlets and paraphernalia found serendipitously, lost and found before being lost again or disintegrating when touched, from which the historian spins their tales.

And yet, within and outside the academic discipline of history, our passion for archives continues. In the past few years, a number of popular digital history projects have appeared on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. One remarkably successful example is The Telugu Archive curated by Priya Kodidala on Instagram. Many of these digital projects have explicitly positioned archives, and their discovery, at the center of new public conversations on history.

I was excited when I first found Kodidala’s digital archive, not least for its stories on the public library movement in Andhra Pradesh. This movement was one of three socio-political movements I studied in my dissertation, Towards a Common Language: Social Movements and Vernacular Publics in Telugu, 1900-1956. However, projects like Kodidala’s invite a fundamental question: How does an archive become “Telugu?” What does this language-as-adjective, and others that can be used as such (“Tamil,” “Kannada,” “Malayalam” archives) convey?

For anyone who’s visited the state-sponsored institutions that hold these documents and artefacts, it will be obvious that the archives themselves do not lean toward the monolingual in expected ways. This reflects the deeply multilingual nature of cultural life in South Asia.

The collections held at the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh State Archives, for example, not only contain Telugu materials but also Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu, English, and other languages of the Deccan. In fact, what is commonly overlooked today is that the twentieth-century writers, scholars, and activists who spearheaded these institutions and their collections were typically multilingual themselves.

Nonetheless, to categorize an archive as “Telugu” also attributes legibility to contemporary linguistic and regional identities. A “Telugu Archive” suggests an archive that is of particular interest to Telugu speakers, functions as historical repository of/for the Telugu-speaking states, and offers a glimpse into the fascinating pasts of our Telugu-speaking forefathers. Each successive iteration calcifies the link between language, community and region as much as it describes it. This is a link that the archives invite as much as they disavow.

The institutions I study in my research were established by people who, much like us, were invested in making the Telugu past available to contemporary readers. This was a chief motivation for the Andhra library movement. Hence, to call these archives “Telugu” does not fundamentally misrepresent the rationale behind their creation.

However, the story of how libraries established at the turn of the twentieth century were transformed into archives in the postcolonial period offers a fascinating glimpse into the material history of the region. This is a history that challenges our current investments in a legible linguistic identity.

The shift from libraries to archives has made many of these institutions the only known repositories for countless books and journals in India. Many of these publications were widely available less than a century ago.

This too is a form of archival production: repositories that emerge not by the sanction of the state or the acts of a historian but simply out of a lack of knowledge about where else this material is held.

Below, I share a few episodes from my forays into the “Telugu Archive.” The vignettes below are part of a larger story about archives and narratives in one part of the previously colonized world – home to what the British Library has termed some of the planet’s most endangered archives.

I offer them to reflect on the sadness, unintentional humor and potential delight of working with vernacular archives.

Access: Here today, gone tomorrow

Entrance to the Andhra Sahitya Parishat: Government Museum and Research Institute (Kakinada, 2016)
(Source: Author)

The Government Museum and Research Institute in Kakinada in south-eastern Andhra Pradesh is a mainstay of many historians’ research trips. It has about ten thousand books, many cupboards stuffed with palm leaf manuscripts, three handwritten catalogs to access the books (Not everything listed in the catalog is available on the shelves the staff helpfully offer), and two unopened cupboards belonging to the Andhra Sahitya Parishat that the Institute had inherited in the 1970s.

Established in 1911, the Parishat was an active participant in language and literary debates in the region. It published a landmark Telugu dictionary in 1936, amassed much of the manuscript material now housed in the library, and compiled, edited and published authoritative editions of many key works of classical Telugu literature.

My historian friend, G, was intrigued by the mysterious unopened cupboards. He chanced upon their existence through a particularly uninspiring conversation that went somewhat like this:

G: What kind of material do you have here? Besides the books in the library?

Clerk: Mostly that. And some 5000 odd palm leaf manuscripts. Old journals.

G: What about material about the Andhra Sahitya Parishat?

Clerk: We don’t have material about the Parishat. But the books and manuscripts are from the Parishat’s collections.

G: But, any reports from the Parishat, its workings, administrative documents? They have to be here! Your department inherited it all!

There was a historian’s desperation in his voice.

All the Parishat’s material had officially passed on to the Government Museum and Research Institute in the 1970s. Such an active institution must have generated a plethora of material about its everyday workings.

G later confided that he was going on a hunch: the Parishat was run by a particularly astute and well-organized lawyer (Jayanti Ramayya Pantulu, (1860-1941) also a noted literary historian, epigraphist and founder of the Parishat), who he believed would have been meticulous in documenting the institution’s everyday functioning. A hunch, however, cannot be footnoted.

Clerk: No. We have nothing of that sort.

Junior Clerk: Oh! We do have a couple of shelves they gave us in 1970.

Clerk: Yes. They belonged to the Andhra Sahitya Parishat. But we haven’t opened them since; we don’t know what’s in them.

G (with a mixture of disbelief and exasperation; it is the state’s Museum and Research Institute after all, tasked with preserving history and historical material in the region): Well, can you open them now? That might be the material I am looking for.

Clerk: Maybe. We need to wait for the manager who has the keys.

After waiting a little while, during which we painstakingly made our way through the handwritten catalogs of the ten thousand books, the manager appears. Except, it turns out she does not have the keys. Nobody has them. They had been lost, it seemed.

G (wishing he had Hulk-powers): Can you break open the lock?

Manager: No. We’ll need permission from the Department Head. He sits in Hyderabad. So, here’s what you should do. Go to Hyderabad (430 kms/270 miles away), meet with the department head, present him with a letter asking for permission to access the material, bring back his authorization letter to us. And then, we can open these shelves.

This department and its head have since moved to Vijayawada, a town in Andhra Pradesh, closer to Kakinada by approximately 200 kms/125 miles. The move was a result of the 2014 bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh into two Telugu-speaking states, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The dislocation of archives as a result of this bifurcation has been of concern to historians in the region, one that is yet to be addressed.

The staff at the Museum and Research Institute in Kakinada was merely following standard procedure in asking for authorization letters. Visitors to the library and archives in Kakinada can browse catalogs without an official letter from the head of the Archives department. But access to the material, whether to read or make copies of, is contingent on receiving prior permission from the department, a fairly routine practice in other archives in the region. We, however, were not appreciative of bureaucracy’s pace, driven as we were by a historian’s archival anxiety.

G: Can’t you call him about the permission now?

Clerk: Hmm…we can try.

As this was transpiring, the manager decided to go ahead and break open the locks to check what might be in there. Shelves were opened. G walked in with the department staff and picked up a stack of material from the first cupboard. Administrative reports from the Parishat. Transcripts of every letter that was sent out. Lists of members. Lists of library books checked out by members. Correspondence relating to the dictionary the Parishat produced in the 1930s. A trove of handwritten and printed material spanning the early years of the Parishat (from 1911) all the way to the later decades of its functioning (into the 1960s).

Meanwhile, G is experiencing what I can only assume is the historian’s version of the Rapture.

On that day, before G went back with an authorization letter, the staff allowed him to make notes about the material. No photographs. Only notes from whatever material he could lay his hands on through the course of the day. It was a start. For now, he knew the archive actually existed.

Discovery: Whispered the catalog to the historian, “Decipher me, if you can”

Library catalogs from Government Museum and Research Institute, Kakinada (above) and Gowthami Library, Rajahmundry (below) in 2016. The Gowthami catalog is a good example of a page with readable handwriting arranged alphabetically. It was two steps ahead of the GMRI catalog which was a random list of its 10,000 titles.
(Source: Author)

Looking through one of the thick, handwritten library catalogs at the Research Institute in Kakinada, I chance upon a 1936 library catalog from Pithapuram Raja’s College (P. R. College, est. 1884), Kakinada.

The catalog listed a seemingly innocuous title, Proceedings – literary vs colloquial Telugu debates. I imagined a treasure trove of pamphlets, tracts, booklets and other ephemera written and circulated between the 1900s and 1930s, most of it during fierce debates about the future of the Telugu language.

I recalled the tracts I had seen references to but had been unable to locate in libraries in the United States, India and the British Library’s list of digitized material, like this superstar title, Death or Life: A Plea for the Vernaculars, repeatedly cited in texts that debated language reform in the 1900s. There seemed to be no extant copies of it. It would be unlikely for the pamphlet to not feature in material about the language reforms (popularly referred to as the ‘literary vs colloquial Telugu’ debates).

The staff at the Research Institute in Kakinada assured me the P. R. College library was well maintained and it was likely to have the material listed in its 1936 catalog. The retired librarian at the College, Satyanarayana Reddy, however crashed my hopes of finding whatever wealth of material I believed the library still contained.

“We had to throw out piles of books, damaged by dampness and mice,” he said. He added that water from the rains in humid, coastal Kakinada seeps up into the library building, covering the floor in a sticky sweat. The moisture can damage even new books but older ones which have not been treated or preserved are unlikely to survive these conditions.[1] I cannot forget this image of soaking books and paper dumped as waste. Perhaps because I was presented with the same image in the three libraries I visited on my research trip. All the libraries face similar conditions and house a similarly shrunk collection, and the staff at all three rue both.

As a testament to the richness of these collections, in spite of the above disasters, I came back with many gigabytes of digitized material from a cursory visit to the libraries, more than enough material to build a dissertation on.

Unearthing the material is not straightforward though given the state of finding aids. The old-style card catalogs in these libraries, if they have one, are a fount of useful information. They tell you if the books are mildly damaged (could sustain photocopying, if handled lightly) or fully damaged (expect a shower of brittle, broken paper when opened). Sometimes, the index cards cannot sustain the trauma of their history- and rodent-infested lives. 

Card catalogs from Gowthami Library, Rajahmundry in 2016.
(Source: Author)

Smirking at the card catalogs however comes at a cost. I am presented with the alternative: handwritten catalogs. These are sometimes categorized alphabetically and written in a good hand. The rest were written by somebody who was clearly not paid enough to do the job or had a few hours before the next tea break to finish it in. Each register contains between 3,000 and 4,000 entries. If I am lucky, most of the register deals with many volumes of a small number of journals and I don’t have to read each title.

Standing in the lawns of the Museum and Research Institute at Kakinada, I puzzled over the discouraging task of reconstructing coherence from texts, art and artifacts rendered into found objects through institutional disasters and the climate’s whims. The head of the Institute caught me channeling British colonial administrators and gazing morosely at the sculptures that lay exposed to the elements in the museum’s premises.[2]

“They’re made of stone. What’s going to ruin them?” he remarked. The insatiable demands of context, perhaps.

Found behind a display of sculpture (3rd to 14th century) in the lawns of the Government Museum and Research Institute, Kakinada in 2016.
(Source: Author)

[1] A situation that persists.

[2] “In 1845 Sir Walter Elliot uncovered sculptures at Amaravati and sent them to Madras where they were left exposed on the green in front of the College [College of Fort St. George?].” British Library – Dome slabs from the Great Stupa of Amaravati

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