Life & Style | People

A portrait of India in The Indian Memory Project

Ordinary photographs of everyday people can tell us as much about the past as history books, Anusha Yadav, curator of The Indian Memory Project, tells Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

  • By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat, Features Writer, Friday
  • Published: 00:00 July 20, 2012
  • Friday

A royal connection
  • Image Credit: Supplied photo
  • (Left photo)Raja Janampally Rameshwar Rao II, with his sons. (Right photo) Krishna Dev Rao (left) with sister Janamma, and brotehr Ram Dev Roa. The photos were taken in 1912.

It was a scandal of sorts in 1920s pre-independent India. A teenage couple - Chameli and Phoolchand Jain - were holding hands in a photograph!

"She was 14 and he was 16," says New Delhi-based journalist Sreenivasan Jain of his paternal grandparents. "It was unusual for couples in our family to even be photographed, especially holding hands, which turned out to be an indication of the unconventional direction their lives would take. Both were inspired by Gandhi's principles of fighting against oppression and illogical social norms of the time."

The image was taken in Delhi, shortly after their marriage in 1923. While the two look like any other young married couple, the defiant act of holding hands stated a lot about their future paths.

"My grandmother Chameli Devi Jain was from a deeply conservative family. She became the first Jain - an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings - woman in her neighbourhood to go to jail while fighting for freedom [and] was named on the day of her arrest in the Hindustan Times with all the other satyagrahis (freedom fighters)...," writes Sreenivasan, of his grandmother in whose name the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain Award for Journalists has been instituted in India.

The picture Sreenivasan submitted to the website and his narrative serve to fill an important chapter in the history of India's freedom struggle - how ordinary people fought against the British and succeeded in their own small way.

We all play our part in history

Most Indians have grown up reading about stories of maharajas and maharanis, exotic invaders and brave leaders either in text books or historical novels.

But would the history of a country ever be complete without the stories of the common people who make up the nation? This was a thought that obsessed Anusha Yadav, a narrative photog rapher, photo archivist and book designer. "No matter what he or she does, or how long they live for, everyone on this planet plays a central role in the history of the world,'' she says. That's why she decided to collect and curate photos. All the details of how she started the project is here.

In fact this is also how Anusha begins her preface to the Indian Memory Project (http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/) which she founded in 2010. Though it may sound self-important, the project is a very accessible format for recording a layman's memories in the form of pictures or postcards.

"The Indian Memory Project is an online, curated, visual and oral history-based archive that traces the personal history of the Indian subcontinent, its people, cultures, professions, cities, development, traditions, circumstances and their consequences," says Anusha, 37. "With images, letters and stories from family archives (collected from contributors), it reconstructs a visual history that is emotionally rich, vivid, informative and even more surprising than we think."

Anusha has always believed that family archives of photographs and letters are a treasure trove of incredible, historically valuable information. "They hold astonishing secrets, and when they reveal themselves via narratives, they become the missing links to a country's emotional history," she says. "A past that we can actually feel, connect and wonder with."

The fact that she had to move from Facebook to a blogsite and then on to her own website within a span of months shows how many people connected with her idea. The hits keep increasing by the day.

A personal perspective

In 2010 Anusha expanded the group out of Facebook. "With only 15 stories, and with the help of a free blog, I formally founded Indian Memory Project," she says.

She decided on an accessible format for recording a layperson's memories in the form of pictures or postcards. "The Indian Memory Project is an online, curated, visual and oral history-based archive that traces the personal history of the Indian subcontinent, its people, cultures, professions, cities, development, traditions, circumstances and their consequences," says Anusha, 37.

"With images, letters and stories from family archives, it reconstructs a visual history that is emotionally rich, vivid, informative and even more surprising than we think."

Anusha has always believed family archives of photographs and letters are a treasure trove of valuable information. "They hold astonishing secrets, and when they reveal themselves via narratives, they become the missing links to a country's emotional history. A past we can actually feel, connect and wonder with."

The fact she had to move from Facebook to a blog and then on to her own website within a span of months shows how many people connected with her idea. Now the website averages 800 hits a day. "With every new post, the daily hits go up to 2,000, sometimes even 6,000 depending on the post and sharing."

The website is most popular in India, Pakistan, Dubai, the UK and USA. Anusha now spends two to three hours a day curating the pictures. "It is my primary priority, but not my primary job," she explains. "I am also a photographer and a publication designer, and I need the money from that to feed the archive."

The power to amaze

What is it about old photographs that pique our interest even if it's not about people we know or even have heard/read about? "Because they make us wonder," says Anusha. "The real story is not necessarily in the frame, but outside of it. The frame offers a point of context."

While the subject may be a simple family portrait, the attitude, position of the people, their dress, and even the style of photography may reveal a lot about the period when it was taken.

Several thoughts about preserving memories through pictures used to come to mind while leafing through old family albums, Anusha says. Chance remarks and her photography experience slowly took the shape of the Indian Memory Project. "Photographs are a way to time-travel and imagine how it must have been, what experiences the characters in the picture would have had," she says. "I have no formal education in art history or anthropology, but have always been interested in both."

Anusha graduated in Communication Design from the National Institute of Design, India's premier design school, and then worked for 16 years as a graphic designer before turning to photography.

There was no intention to compile the photographs in a book, or expand it into an exhibition. Once the penny dropped, Anusha wanted it to be ‘a free online, cross-referenced, visual and narrative archive'.

The reason? "The internet has great power," says Anusha. "It can spread information like nothing ever before. And for me the more people see it, the better. What better medium?"

Many social commentators have likened the project as a sign of the times - it's almost like oral history accompanied by physical evidence.

"I am not sure if it's the sign of the times, but yes some kind of proof or context is what makes the project very exciting," says Anusha. "So much so that now a few people from two or three other countries intend to follow the same format as the Indian Memory Project. Nepal is already on its way, while Estonia and Iran have expressed interest."

So far 150 photographs have been sent by contributors, of which 84 have been curated. "The more people read about it, the more they are inspired to send in images," says Anusha. However, not all of them make the cut. "I think what the image evokes is important. The image that holds a special meaning to the contributor matters, because you can sense the attachment. And an image that makes you want to look at it and get lost in it, matters. I also implement an emotional understanding to the images rather than just a logical curatorial one."

Anusha has no favourites. "Each one is a clue to an unknown history, a missing piece to a huge puzzle. All images and narratives are important, they each add another layer, another clue to our history, so there is no best, they are all pieces of a puzzle that's yet to be completed. The stories differ, times, people and cultures differ, some are elaborate some are not."

Anusha sees the Indian Memory Project as an organic entity, growing on its own. "Sometimes even I'm not sure where it's headed. However, I do know where I would like it to go - to become a permanent online storehouse of memories. But the offshoots - an exhibition, or books - will be part of the project too.

"The Indian Memory Project found a life of its own, way larger, way more exciting than I even thought. And if that is the nature of its life, it must be allowed to do so. People have found ancestors, common spaces, acquaintances, common ground because of a project like this.

"I never even imagined that would happen. But it did."

How to contribute to the Indian Memory Project

Anybody with photographs or letters dated prior to 1991 can go to the website and upload them, along with a short write-up about the history surrounding the piece. The contribution will be curated and if found suitable, added to the archive. http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/

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