The Indian Memory Project

The Indian Memory Project website is a visual and oral history of the Indian sub-continent through family and personal archives. It is now the home for scores of remarkable images and personal stories. It was set up in 2010 by designer and photographer Anusha Yadav, and she explains here where the idea came from and what the site has achieved:

Photographs have for a long time been my all time favourite – in a museum, in books or at someone’s house. I was brought up in Jaipur, the royal capital of Rajasthan, albeit it wasn’t that royal any more during my childhood. Visiting my friends’ homes I would gaze at living room tables and walls embellished with images of royal or elite family and relatives. At my own home, we would spend holidays projecting my late father’s images on the wall, photographed when we lived in London and the USA. I would relive what I considered the happiest of my memories, insisting that my mother repeat all the adventures of our lives there.

Photographs to me did not evoke the same sentiments as paintings. Paintings were imagined, fictional perhaps, but photographs were real. And with every image that had me pause, a story about it became lodged in my imagination. I would find myself time travelling; imagining myself in the subject’s place and time.

Over time, I attended the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad in western India, worked with several graphic design and advertising firms, changed several jobs and travelled to different parts of the world in quest of new sights. Photography had begun to become exceptionally important to me. I also attended the University of Sussex to study for a Masters in Photography, but lack of finances made me abandon it after a semester and return to India.

A few years later, and now working as a photographer and book designer, a publisher was interested in new ideas for a photo book. I had for many years toyed with the notion that there was at least one memorable photograph lying in everyone’s photo albums – and especially wedding photos. Weddings are always photographed in India, or if people couldn’t afford photography, the newly weds had themselves photographed right after a wedding, as proof of marriage. It seemed like a good idea to explore, to document modern yet diverse India through images of weddings, their traditions and forgotten ceremonies.

“My Grandmother Chameli Devi Jain and Grandfather Phool Chand Jain, shortly after their marriage. Delhi. Circa 1923”. A teenage couple who became noted Freedom Fighters  Image and text contributed by Sreenivasan Jain, Journalist, New Delhi  http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/46-2/

“My Grandmother Chameli Devi Jain and Grandfather Phool Chand Jain, shortly after their marriage. Delhi. Circa 1923”. A teenage couple who became noted Freedom Fighters
Image and text contributed by Sreenivasan Jain, Journalist, New Delhi
http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/46-2/

As if by divine design, Facebook, the social networking site had just introduced a photo-sharing platform for people to post images and it was to mark the beginning of crowd sourcing images and stories.  Happily, people are not very good with instructions, and along with posted images they mentioned more than just a wedding story. There were other personal stories – of events such as Partition, migration, inter-racial marriages, World Wars, polygamy and many more. Each photo came with a riveting anecdote about their lives, their families, their grievances, as well as their accomplishments.

That’s when the idea of the India Memory Project sprang up. With a narrative and context attached, an image can reveal so much more. The narrative itself, online, could be categorized, labeled, tagged and thus searched. Anyone could trace any event and circumstance (micro or macro) that was mentioned, leading to the notion that one could possible trace an entire history of a subcontinent. And as far as I could see, no one yet had implemented anything like this.

While the British were comprehensive in documenting the days of the Raj, most of these records lie in national archives or private collections and are not easily accessible. Some aren’t even open to public. My annoyance that archives were meant for the privileged by the privileged made me decide in the very beginning that the Indian Memory Project was to be open and free for access by all. As far as the project itself was concerned it was an experiment with no exact assumption of what I or anyone else may find.

Some of the incredible examples in the Archive can be found above and below:
The oldest picture dates to 1890, a couple from Mangalore (from Karnataka in south-west India) who moved to Bombay, Maharashtra and had themselves photographed in local Marathi attire, possibly to quickly fit in to a society where the culture was very different from their own.

Image and Text Contributed by Manorath Palan, Mumbai  “My great-grand parents Mr Tavadappa Talwar and Mrs Laxmibai Talwar”  http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/13/

Image and Text Contributed by Manorath Palan, Mumbai
“My great-grand parents Mr Tavadappa Talwar and Mrs Laxmibai Talwar” 
http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/13/

“My mother Anupa Nathaniel (right) with her closest friend Shalini Gupta, Delhi, Circa 1962” North India’s first girl rock band, The Mad Hatters Image and Text contributed by Anisha Jacob Sachdev, New Delhi  http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/27-2/

“My mother Anupa Nathaniel (right) with her closest friend Shalini Gupta, Delhi, Circa 1962” North India’s first girl rock band, The Mad Hatters
Image and Text contributed by Anisha Jacob Sachdev, New Delhi
http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/27-2/

“My mother, Mohini Goklani. Pune, Maharashtra. Circa 1950” Image of a Mohini Goklani who would have herself photographed (in confidence) as ‘liberal’ . Copying Indian Film stars, they wore pants and holding a cigarette (1950).  Image and Text contributed by Sunita Kripalani, Goa http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/80/

“My mother, Mohini Goklani. Pune, Maharashtra. Circa 1950”
Image of a Mohini Goklani who would have herself photographed (in confidence) as ‘liberal’ . Copying Indian Film stars, they wore pants and holding a cigarette (1950).
Image and Text contributed by Sunita Kripalani, Goa
http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/80/

Margurite Mumford and Bert Scott. College sweethearts, who were separated due to Partition.  Image contributed by Jason Scott Tilley.  http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/102/

Margurite Mumford and Bert Scott. College sweethearts, who were separated due to Partition.
Image contributed by Jason Scott Tilley. http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/102/

The site now has more than one-hundred images, of which those on show here are just a few. Several include narratives and images around Partition and how it affected their lives – and in turn ours. Each and every image is a clue or a missing piece to what I call a personal history of the Indian subcontinent, a baffling mystery pool of diversity, circumstances, opportunities and stories. These images and stories also reveal that global and political events have influenced each one of our lives in some way. And I stand convinced that every person on this planet plays a central role in forming a history of the land as well as the world. It has become an incredibly insightful and impactful archive of the Indian subcontinent by its people and visitors.

A mostly self funded entity, Indian Memory Project now stands tall – it has been referenced by academics, photographers and social documentary makers worldwide. Its images are being used as reference in film and theatre, the project is also cited in research papers and it has been featured in news publications worldwide. It’s had more than half-a-million visitors from all across the world.

My plans to expand the project include books, smart device Apps, more interactivity, displays and exhibitions as well as several collaborations. But above all the quest is to get more images and stories from people, and the site is also in dire need of greater resources and funds.

In quest to find funds, I am recommending that Indian corporations and even family run businesses commission their own histories with visual images and narrative. To my mind there is no better way to document a history, than through photographs and the stories that accompany them.

Anusha Yadav

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