Empowered Keepers Of Their Own Histories Piecing Together Life Of The Subcontinent

Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra, through a crowd-sourced digital Museum of Material Memory, are on a mission to trace family histories and memories of the Indian subcontinent through objects, heirlooms and personal artefacts

A clock, a mukut, old photos - objects often possess memories of their own, and offer a unique insight into the past and the present. They carry with them a glimpse into the life of its owner, and the hands that have held it, over the years. For millions of refugees that navigated one of the most turbulent times in the subcontinent, the India-Pakistan Partition, these objects form an intrinsic link to the memories of a distant past. It is these memories that stem from material objects that the Museum of Material Memory archives and stores for posterity. We spoke to Aanchal Malhotra, who co-founded the digital repository with Navdha Malhotra.

Your book Remnants of a Separation A History of the Partition through Material Memory struck a chord with readers. What prompted you to extend it into a platform

Aanchal The idea for the Museum was born from my personal research on objects that migrated across the border during the Partition of India in 1947 on both sides. While I was compiling my book, Remnants Of A Separation A History of Partition through Material Memory (HarperCollins India, 2017), several people began writing in to know whether I could visit them to see and write about their objects. It got me thinking about the ways that an organic archive could be built to preserve material history. One that was based on submissions, where people from across the subcontinent and its diaspora could write and submit stories about the objects that have existed in their families for generations, in order to celebrate the shared material history of the subcontinent, in a way that transcends the borders that now exist between its countries.

The Museum&rsquos co-founder, Navdha and I were in school together and we have always shared a love for fine art and artefacts. When I discussed the project with her, she suggested that we extend the time period beyond Partition to include objects until the 1970s. This not only broadened our historical and geographic scope tremendously - by allowing communities that had not been impacted by Partition to be a part of this archive - but also expanded the periphery of knowledge that we were hoping these personal artefacts would provide. It is a platform that invites South Asians to be empowered keepers of their own histories, whether oral or material, and we hope that this contribution format will encourage people to actively archive personal history.

 In a country like India, what do you think is the value of oral history and material memory

As a methodology, oral history has gained enormous resonance over the last decade or so. More than often, it provides a more nuanced and diverse understanding of historical events, when viewed through the testimonies of a family, individual or even through heirlooms and artefacts.

Something that came to light quite naturally when I was conducting research for my books was that as South Asians, we have not necessarily been keepers of archives, particularly family archives, in the same way as in the West. And while we care for and respect the heirlooms that populate our lives, often even in daily use, we do not necessarily take the time to understand the histories they hold. However, material history can help piece together the ethnographic and social landscape of a particular time and region, as well act as a bridge for intergenerational remembrance.

Our aim at the Museum is to focus on the specificity, and familial and cultural importance of every object for its story to be told in the words of the family it belongs to. This method not only celebrates individuality, but draws connections where a similar object may be used in various households/regions across lands divided by manmade borders. It also exhumes histories which may have been forgotten within families or rendered invisible by official or academic archives, allowing these micro-histories to come to the forefront and occupy space.

Do you believe social media has enabled people to find an interest in our shared historical legacy Is there a purpose behind your presence on social media

The democratic nature of the social media space is definitely the driving force behind so many unheard histories recently gaining due importance. We have found that for highly nuanced stories - like the kinds we, at the Museum, focus on - a digital platform is ideal. It allows one to really be the &lsquoowner&rsquo or &lsquovoice&rsquo of their own history which is a very powerful experience. The immediate shareability also augments our borderless approach, wherein an object from a home in Pakistan can be read about and viewed in a home in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, or even the diaspora, and shared histories or common interests can emerge thereafter. Our comments section is usually peppered with people not only resonating with the object in focus, but also narrating their own family tales that revolve around similar objects. One story very often leads us to another.

Moreover, our presence on channels like Instagram enable us to facilitate a dialogue on shared histories and common realities amongst people from different countries. It&rsquos our biggest medium to crowdsource our stories and more importantly share them with the world.

How do people contribute to the platform And more importantly, how do you decide what makes it to the archives

We have a contribute form on our website where people can fill in their responses and attach photographs of the objects, but people can also email us directly and often choose to do that. Instagram also is a popular medium where people reach out with stories or photographs of objects, which we then take forward more formally. After receiving a submission, we work closely with the writer to develop the narrative. Most pieces become quite collaborative, with questions, comments, input, introspection on our part to encourage the writer to flesh out more details or situate the object within a historical context. Everyone has objects but tracing their origin, doing research, obtaining photographs and getting in touch with relatives for more information is time consuming. Moreover, writing down your personal memories and family history isn&rsquot the easiest task, and we appreciate and understand the time writers devote to these stories.

The Museum also functions on a number of templates - at times, the contributor writes the story and takes the photographs, other times, they write the story but one of the founders takes the photographs. There are also instances where we have written the story collaboratively. Finally, since not everyone may be comfortable writing their thoughts down, there are stories written by the founders based on first-hand interviews with the family or individual.

We accept almost every object submitted to the Museum, as long as it is from before the 1970s. That being said, we have made exceptions if the story and object is very compelling.

Are you hoping that these platforms will prompt conversations around history and identity

The original purpose of the Museum was that people would contribute, thereby ensuring that memorialization was happening in an active way in every household. Since each story requires a history of the object, the writer often turns to their family to excavate that history, and the conversation almost always reveals something that was earlier unknown. Questions about the past, told through the eyes of an object, revealed not only where that object has once originated and been used, but also how it has been preserved as the years passed. For instance, the story of an old clock revealed a history of migration from Sindh, Pakistan to Rajasthan, India objects carried from Peshawar to Mussoorie during Partition are still able to bring an 87 year old man to tears a mukut worn during a wedding in District Gujrat in 1937 continues to adorn the sehras of three generations of grooms.

Our initial aim of prompting intergenerational conversation within families about the past is being fulfilled. What is also beautiful about this writing process is that the everyday is being looked at with closer introspection and interest. Items that would have been ordinarily cast aside as merely old, are being rediscovered, given a proper place in family history. We can see in our submissions how everyday objects have begun to gain new life as a younger generation discovers the stories and memories hidden within them.

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