Sepia Saris and Faded Family Photos
A Digital History of India
The Indian Memory Project
Tales of children who missed school for two years because of the Indian subcontinent’s partition; behind the scenes stories of the makers of the pen that wrote the constitution of India; glimpses of the last Silk Route trader from India, or just an edgy look at India’s first all-girl band.
Anecdotes, history, and nostalgia weave through the sepia-tinted photographs that line the website of the Indian Memory Project – a crowd-sourced online collection of family photographs and stories that aims to chronicle the collective history of the Indian Subcontinent through the lives of everyday individuals.
The archive, the first of its kind, was created by Anusha S. Yadav, a documentary photographer herself, when she realized that there were no accessible public archives within the Indian Subcontinent. “Even those that did exist were only available for the privileged,” she said. “We don’t really know much about our own country.”
Stories and pictures in the five-year-old project, which on last count had collected 150 stories, range from weddings, formal portraits, war heroes, parties, holidays, and other small fragments that offer a snapshot of life in India prior to 1990 (the oldest photo is from 1890). Contributions have come from all over the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, India, Pakistan, and Dubai.
Yadav said that she thought it was important for the country to tell its stories in more engaging ways, especially at a time when most history textbooks are bland and lack nuance and diversity. "Amnesia isn’t good for anyone. Knowledge is helpful to create room for tolerance. We’re all so quick to pass judgment based on small, superficial differences," she said. “Undocumented history, is why it repeats itself."
Yadav didn’t set out to create an archive of this nature. She wanted to make a coffee table book that showcased the varied styles of weddings around India. "We have so many different cultures within India, and our weddings highlight different traditions and practices,” said Yadav. The coffee table book fell through, but a call on Facebook to get photos from friends had resulted in tons of pictures telling personal family stories, and an idea was born. "Photographs are a way to travel through time and understand the world," Yadav said.
To participate, a sender has to send in a photograph attached with a story that scratches beneath the surface of the image. "Find details, tell a story, not an idea," Yadav said.
"We’re all hardwired for stories, in India particularly. All our folk tales are about stories,” she added. “And it also gives you a completely different look at history. You realize that there is no absolute truth, different people experience things differently, and remember things differently. I’ve learned more about India through this process than any textbook I have read. Who better to tell us what’s going on than the people? History is gossip well told."
(Click on the arrow at the bottom right to view stories from the Indian Memory Project)
For more details, go to the Indian Memory Project site.
Ami Cholia is the Social Media Editor for The Brooklyn Quarterly and works as the Senior Digital Strategist at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health.
This photograph of my parents Taroon Coomar Bhaduri and Indira Bhaduri is by far one of my most favourite images of all, and while I have asked myself the reason so very many times, I am still not sure why. I had looked at and thought about it so often, that a few years ago my mother simply gave it to me as a gift.
I think this photograph was taken right after their marriage. My mother whom I call Ma was 14 and my father, Baba was 20. One of the most striking parts of this photograph is Ma’s black Georgette saree. I have wondered about that too. Georgette & Chiffons were expensive materials, meant only for the rich. We came from a middle-class income family, and affording Georgette would have been out of the question. But I think Baba had a role to play in that; he was very broad- minded and seemed to have kept in touch with the latest elegant fashions of the time. It must have made him very happy seeing a visionary image of himself and his family, even if the opportunities were far and few.
I also remember another story within the family- when he went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to buy his sister’s wedding trousseau and insisted that his sister get married in a beautiful white saree. The family was aghast. Hindu women never got married in white, but red. The outcry against tradition was met with no avail, and it was to be his will or nothing. The family later complied and my aunt did get married in a beautiful white Banarsi Saree.
Baba’s family came from Krishnanagar, West Bengal and Ma’s from Danapur, Bihar. I always found it fascinating that he would spell his middle name ‘Kumar’ as ‘Coomar’; perhaps he was armed with the knowledge that he set himself apart with that spelling, which was unheard of and a rather individualistic attitude for the time. Baba’s jobs and associations had us move quite a few times within North India – to Jabalpur, Nagpur, and later Bhopal. In Nagpur, he became Chief Reporter of the Nagpur Times and remained in that position for several years. He eventually received a great offer from The Statesman and relocated as its correspondent to Bhopal in the mid-1960s.
The 60s were also the time when Dacoits (bandits) were a menace in Chambal (confluence of three states Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) and one of the biggest urban legends of India. As a fiery and resourceful correspondent, Baba’s influence and mannerisms won the confidence of all dacoits in Chambal, with whom he lived for some time documenting their lives and deeds. In the late 60s, he authored a Bengali travelogue/semi-fictional novel based on his experiences titled “Abhishapath Chambal,” (also titled Abar Abhishapta Chambal) which was later translated into English as “Chambal: the Valley of Terror”. The Book and Baba were both an overnight success.
We are three sisters, Rita, Neeta and I, Jaya. I am the eldest. Baba was our best friend; our confidante, our mentor and he understood us very well. He was deeply interested in educating & empowering all his daughters and encouraged all three of us to make our lives more worthwhile, interesting and different from others. He wrote several books, he was a phenomenal journalist & writer and in time his intellect and visionary opinions won him great respect, many friends, and acquaintances in esteemed intellectual and political circles.
Baba’s quest to create great work, his individualistic and unique attitude most certainly had an impact on my own personality. When I was around 13, I remember my sisters and I returned home after watching a popular, run-of-the-mill formula based film and told him about it. He got extremely upset and snapped, “Why do you watch such trash?!”. That remark left an impression on me, and later perhaps even led me to make informed choices in the films I worked on as a female actor.
Around the same time as his remark, Satyajit Ray, the well-known filmmaker was looking for a supporting lead in his film Mahanagar, and offered the role to me. I was only a teenager and unsure whether acting was what I really wanted to do. The recent Sino-India war (Indo-China) of 1962 had changed the landscape of our country yet again and life felt a bit unsettled. Baba’s response to my reluctance was, “This opportunity might never come again.” After some consideration, I decided to try for the part and got it. Baba was very proud of me. When I was due for further education, he agreed to let me study at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the rest as most know is history.
When Baba passed away in 1996, I lost my best friend, and a big part of myself. Needless to say, I am proud to be the daughter of an incredible man who left an impactful legacy to the field of journalism, penmanship and his family. He made me who I am. He was and still is, by all means, my hero.
Some text is paraphrased from the Book – Civil Disobedience : Two Freedom Struggles, One Life, memoirs of my father LC Jain, noted economist and Gandhian.
This image was photographed in Delhi, shortly after my paternal grandparents Chameli and Phool Chand, got married. She was 14 and he was 16. It was unusual for couples in our family to be photographed, especially holding hands, which turned out to be an indication of the unconventional direction their lives would take. They were Gandhians and freedom fighters.
The only visible reminder of her brush with the radical politics of the freedom movement was the milky cornea in her right eye, the result of an infection picked up in Lahore Jail where she had spent 4 months in 1932. Otherwise, she was Ammaji: gentle, almost luminous in her white saris, regular with her samaik (Jain prayer), someone who would take great pleasure, on our Sunday visits, to feed us dal chawal (rice and lentils) mixed with her own hands.
My grandmother grew up in a village called Bahadarpur in Alwar, about four hours south of Delhi, in a deeply conservative Jain family. The family was locally influential; they were traders in cotton turbans, woven by local Muslim weavers and sold in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. They also were moneylenders. As with much of rural Rajasthan, the women were in purdah. Within two years of their marriage, their first child, my father, was born.
Ammaji moved with my grandfather into the family home in the teeming bylanes of Dariba in Chandni Chowk. But he had developed a growing interest in Gandhi and the nationalist movement and soon broke away from the family business to join the Delhi Congress. In 1929, soon after the call for Poorn Swaraj at the Lahoresession, he was arrested for the first time.
My grandfather’s stint in jail exposed him to even more radical politics. Along with his Congress membership, he also became part of the revolutionary Hindustan Socialist Republican Association which counted Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad amongst its members. (Azad, in an interview, acknowledged that he received his first revolver from my grandfather). He also became a reporter for the nationalist newspaper at the time, Vir Arjun, whose editor he had met in jail.
In 1932, Gandhi called for a major nationwide satyagraha against foreign goods. It was also the year a bomb was thrown at Lord Lothian, an act in which my grandfather played a role. When he told my grandmother that he was going to jail, she said this time she would go to prison first, by taking part in the swadeshi satyagraha. The household was stunned. Ammaji’s life had revolved around ritual, the kitchen and ghoonghat. Her decision led to the following heated exchange; witnessed by my father, age 7:
Babaji: “You don’t know anything about jail.”
Ammaji: “Nor did you when you were first arrested.”
Babaji: “Who will look after the children ?”
Ammaji: “You will.”
Sensing that things were getting out of hand, my great grandmother, Badi Ammaji locked both of them into a room. But my grandfather apparently fashioned an escape from the window using knotted dhotis and Ammaji, head uncovered, marched with other women pouring out of their homes towards the main bazaar. The crowd had swelled into hundreds. There were cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki Jai’. As they began to move around picketing shops selling foreign goods, they were arrested, taken to Delhi Jail, and charged with four and half months of rigorous imprisonment.
Her arrest, not surprisingly, outraged the family in Alwar. Umrao Singhji, Ammaji’s father, came to Delhi and had a big argument with my great grandfather, accusing the in-laws of ‘ruining our princess’. But Ammaji found an ally in her in-laws, who refused to pay her bail out of respect for her satyagraha. Umrao Singhji then tried to talk his daughter out of it when she was being transferred to Lahore Jail. ‘Chameli, apologise, ask for pardon.’ But Ammaji asked him not to worry. ‘Bolo Bharat Mata ki Jai’, she said, as she was being led away in a rickshaw along with the other prisoners. ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, responded her father.
She returned from Lahore four months later, a minor heroine. But there was also loss. Lakshmi, her daughter, five years old, fell from the balcony of the house and died when she was in Lahore jail. And there was the milky cornea – the loss of an eye. But her world had somewhat widened. She wore her ghoonghat a few inches higher. She gave her Rajasthani ghaghra choli away, and wore only hand-spun.
She spun on the charkha. She would attend meetings with other women on matters of community reform, like widow remarriage and also became more involved in the activities of the local sthanak, the Jain community’s prayer and meditation hall. She had, as it turns out, quietly fashioned her own blend of Jain renunciation and Gandhian abstinence.
In the years that followed, my grandfather retained his engagement with the freedom struggle. He would often go to sit in the family’s property agency in Model Town, but his real passion, which consumed most of his last 30 years was compiling a massive index of freedom fighters, a staggering 11 volume chronicle of the stories of countless ordinary men and women, who took part in protests, bomb conspiracies, went to jail, lived and died. For my grandmother, it was a gradual return to a more conventional domesticity.
But, that single action that morning in 1932 had opened up a world: a young woman from a deeply conservative family, who became the first Jain woman in her neighbourhood to go to jail, who was named on the day of her arrest in the Hindustan Times with all the other satyagrahis and who would return home to other freedoms, even if minor, like a ghoonghat that could be worn a few inches back.
And for that, she would one day have an award named after her. The Chameli Devi Jain Award.
In 1947, after partition, when my grandfather Nanikram Goklani and his wife Khemi migrated to India, along with their extended family from Karachi, Pakistan, they settled in Pune, Maharashtra with their 9 children. My mother Mohini, second of seven sisters, was just 16 at that time. Grandpa got a job in the Income Tax department and although times were tough, my grandfather made sure all the children received excellent education.
My mother and her older sister Sheela went to Nowrosjee Wadia College and my grandfather managed to procure admission for some of the younger children in reputed schools such as Sardar Dastur Hoshang Boys’ High School, and St. Helena’s School for Girls. The children studied well, they were voracious readers, and led a simple life.
During the 1950s, the sisters were well versed in household skills, especially the art of stitching and embroidery. They fashioned their own clothes, copying designs from magazines and the displays in the shop windows of Main Street. At home however, they maintained decorum and modesty, but ever so often, Duru, my mother’s younger sister, would coax her to go with her to a photo studio on Main Street called The Art Gallery to get their photographs taken. Duru would pack all kinds of stuff for both of them: ties and beads, scarves and skirts, hats and belts, not to forget some make-up, and the two of them would mount their bicycles and head for the studio where they indulged their fantasies, using studio props and their own accessories.
In the picture my mother is wearing “Awara pants”, a style made famous after the well known actor, Raj Kapoor’s movie by the same name. She is also very nonchalantly holding a cigarette, albeit unlit, between her fingers! The photograph is totally incongruous with her personality, for copying Nargis, the star actress of the time, was more my mom’s style whereas my aunt Duru was bolder and more tomboyish.
I don’t know if my grandfather knew what was going on, or if he approved, but he was not the kind of father who would scold any of his children. If he didn’t like something, he simply wrote a few words on a piece of paper and slipped the little note under that child’s pillow, which was enough to bring the rebellious offspring back on track… but that’s another story.
After college, my mother got a job at the Department of Cooperation, Government of Maharashtra. It was her first and last job. She retired in 1985 as Assistant Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Bombay.
My grandparents, Balwant Goindi, a Sikh and Ram Pyari, a Hindu were married in 1923. She was re-named Mohinder Kaur after her marriage. They went on to have eight daughters and two sons, one of the daughters happens to be my mother.
Balwant Goindi owned a whiskey shop in Lahore. He was a wealthy man and owned a Rolls Royce. During the Indo-Pakistan Partition, he and his family migrated to Simla, without any of his precious belongings; assuming he would return after the situation had calmed down, however, that never happened. After moving around, and attempting to restart his business with other Indian trader friends, they finally settled down in Karol Bagh. The area was primarily residential with a large Muslim population until the exodus of many to Pakistan and an influx of refugees from West Punjab after partition in 1947, many of whom were traders. It must have been a very sad day when he heard that his home and his shops in Lahore were burnt down.