It was in the second half of my doctoral field-trip last year that I set foot in Dhaka. My doctoral project focuses on the publishing journeys of collected roopkotha (loosely but commonly translated to English as ‘fairytales’) in undivided Bengal during the turn of the 20th century. Specifically, it studies the ways in which the genre opened up questions of gender, sexuality and childhood for the readers and the collectors of the tales, as well as the literary critics of the time. Hoping to access a range of materials like manuscripts, journals and collections of folk material, I intended to engage in a comparative study of what was retained and what was transmuted during the crystallisation of the roopkotha as a genre. As a result I was undeniably hopeful about the formidable collection of folk material in the form of tales, songs, rhymes etc that are in the possession of archives in Dhaka, especially the Bangla Academy and the Dhaka University Central Library.
In this piece, I wish to reflect briefly on my experience at the Bangla Academy archives, where I spent most of my time in Dhaka. As a doctoral student in SOAS, UK, I will try to reflect on this experience in a manner which speaks to the broader academic conversations about archives and history-writing. Specifically, I hope to engage with two interrelated conversations. Firstly, on the need for exploring the rich treasure of manuscripts and collections at archives such as Bangla Academy in our writing of histories of South Asia. And secondly, on the movement towards decolonizing knowledge that has gained momentum in universities across the world, while also flagging the role that archives old and new might play in this re-visiting of ‘elusive pasts’.
The process of gaining access to the Bangla Academy library was fairly simple and after completing the necessary paperwork, I was led to an office where a number of staff members were present. Here, I had a detailed discussion with the members about my doctoral project. Since I only had two weeks in Dhaka, they were keen on familiarising themselves with the exact research questions my project seeks to address so that they could provide me with specific and relevant documents. Having worked at the British Library, the archives of the Folklore Society in London and the National Library in Kolkata prior to this, to name a few other archives, this was a completely new and exciting experience for me. While most of these other places had definitely made sincere efforts to procure (sometimes very rare and brittle) documents for me, the Bangla Academy library was the first to ask me in such detail about my work and actively participate in the process of accessing items. At the end of our discussion, I was handed a print-out of the catalogue of all the documents and books that the Bangla Academy library had in their possession and I spent the rest of my first day here enthusiastically marking out all the titles that sounded promising. At the end of the day, I handed over a list of fourteen titles that I had picked out to a staff member.
When I went back the next day, I was informed that not a single one of those fourteen titles was found. This was not the first time I had been unable to access catalogued documents at an archive, of course. In my experience in Kolkata and Delhi, for example, I was denied access to a number of items because they were too brittle for handling. But this was still confusing. How could all fourteen of the titles, chosen from a catalogue complete with call numbers, handed to me by the staff members themselves, not be found? Could it actually be a coincidence? Still hopeful, I added seven more titles to this list and waited while a staff member looked for them on a different floor. About an hour later, he returned to tell me that none of these could be found either. When I asked how every one of the twenty-one titles could be unavailable, I was told that they could be lost in the sacks of unorganised documents that had not been unpacked since the library moved from the old building to the new one in 2012. Or worse, they could have been lost completely in the process of moving to the new building.
Even from the list of the twenty-one titles that I had marked, out of the much longer catalogue given to me, the range and wealth of holdings at the Bangla Academy became quite clear. With respect to my own work for example, I had requested for punthis (manuscripts) titled Radhikar Baromashi (‘Radhika’s Twelve Month Poem’), Juboker Nikot Rajkonyar Monobhab Byakto (‘The Princess Expresses Her Feelings to the Young Man’) and Chondrokolar Bibaho (‘Chandrakala’s Wedding’), hoping to trace a genealogy of literary descriptions of desire and beauty that took form in a specific way within the roopkotha genre. Titles with names that exactly matched the names of roopkotha characters (like Modhumala and Rupoboti for example) were especially exciting for me, as they could potentially reveal exact plots as they manifested differently within two different literary genres that had developed in very different milieu. The other titles in the catalogue could potentially be significant for scholars working on a range of topics relating to South Asia, from trade, migration, warfare, mythology and musical and literary traditions.
As mentioned earlier, despite the promises held by the catalogue that I was handed at the Bangla Academy, the actualisation of its potential unfortunately remained elusive. The problem here is not the specific case of Bangla Academy or its staff (who were some of the most enthusiastic archival staff in my experience) but a general bureaucratic apathy towards, and a resulting underfunding of, the preservation of historical material. Moreover, according to an interview of Dr. Md. Shahjahan Mian (Professor of the Department of Bengali at Dhaka University), there is also a waning scholarly interest in the study of old and middle Bengali literary and linguistic traditions, which directly affects the maintenance and care provided by archivists to old and endangered documents. Yet, it is at the current juncture, that the importance of well-maintained archives has increasingly become evident.
At an academic juncture where the hermeneutic possibilities of texts are being pushed to challenge the superiority of European knowledge systems, the titles listed in Bangla Academy’s catalogue (and hopefully, still in their possession) can make significant contributions towards the writing of situated histories of South Asia. It is crucial to realise that contrary to the understanding that they are recalcitrant/dead objects, historical texts actually provide dynamic commentaries on both the creation of the present as well as the imagination of a future. Moreover, we live at a time when state-directed narratives of history are taking increasingly sectarian stances and pitting ethnic, linguistic and religious communities against one another. In this context, the careful maintenance and use of archives in South Asia open up the possibilities of exploring critical fragments from connected pasts.
What is clear, therefore, is that it is the collective responsibility of archivists and those interested in the study of the past, (now also with strategic engagements with technologists) to realise the full potential of these sources. They tell stories that help us make sense of the world we inhabit while also having the potential to question and change the knowledge systems through which we have hitherto understood this world (dominated as they are by European Enlightenment models and values). In recent times, a number of initiatives like the Partition Archive and Dhaka’s own Herstory have used innovative media like animation, oral-histories, sound recordings and social media in ways that make us rethink what archives are, what they look like and what they can do. At the same time, they reiterate the centrality of the preservation of history, precisely in the retelling of it. For several years now, Bangla Academy has itself been engaged in the contemporary recording of numerous folk tales, songs, rhymes and other forms which are published in a number of book series like the Bangladesher Lokoj Shongskriti Gronthomala (‘The Folk Culture of Bangladesh Series’) and the Folklore Shongrohomala (‘The Folklore Collection Series’) Yet, it is equally important for Bangla Academy to use its enormous potential and the access it has to culturally rich regions in Bangladesh to acquire and preserve older documents, so that the new collections remain grounded in narrative traditions and histories that have educated and entertained our society for centuries. In the face of a raging pandemic that is increasingly delimiting physical access to archives, it has possibly become even more exigent to think of new technologies and methods of preservation that enable a more democratic access to documents old and new.
I therefore wish to end with the earnest hope that archives in South Asia, including but not limited to the Bangla Academy, will continue planning expansions, both physical and digital, in service of the better preservation of documents and the diversification of the kind of documents that can be archived, and never at the cost of it.
Raahi Adhya is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her research interests include concepts and cultures of childhood, print history, folktales, gender and culture.