The Citizens Archive of India Records Personal History

2 years ago

There are several outlets and academics devoted to recording political currents. Personal histories, which are deeply intertwined with the politics of the day, are often lost in postcards, forgotten notes and lost journals. The Citizens’ Archive of India (CAI) is a project launched in 2016, committed to preserving and cherishing oral history. We caught up with the founder Rohan Parikh and the force behind the project, Malvika Bhatia, to discover what drives them.


What about the idea of creating a Citizens’ Archive appealed to you?

Rohan Parikh: I lost my grandmother just a few months before my daughter was born. I realised that my daughter would never hear stories about how she grew up. This motivated me to start CAI. A similar project, The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, had been set up across the border about a decade ago, founded by my friend, documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. We used that precedent and Sharmeen’s advice to get it started here.


What is the objective of CAI?

RP: I realised that we have only a few precious years left with the generation which has lived through 1947 and seen India being born. Their stories will die with them. Our main focus is to build India’s story through its best storytellers – its citizens.

Our first #100yearold interviewee, Mrs. Mithoo Coorlawala, attended #NewnhamCollege at the #UniversityOfCambridge from 1938-1939. Back then, they didn’t award women degrees. Mrs. Coorlawala tells us how life has changed since then. “The men’s colleges were so furious when two women’s colleges were established, that they burnt down the gates of our college, Newnham, and also, they had a big tamasha in the marketplace. There was a lot of violence against the opening of a women’s college. And (they said), ‘You can have a college there if you must, but you don’t get degrees.’ You could study, have the same syllabus, sit for the same exams, but when you passed, you didn’t get a convocation. You got your degree by post. It was not a recognized thing. It was more a ‘do it if you must’. That was pretty humiliating. After a lot of agitation, they began to give degrees at a convocation, same as the men. So I went to celebrate 50 years of that.” This is a photograph of Mrs. Coorlawala on the day of her convocation ceremony in 1998, 60 years after she first attended Cambridge. #OralHistory #TheGeneration1947Project

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How do you go about identifying people you’d like feature?

Malvika Bhatia: So far, we’ve found people to interview mostly by word-of-mouth. As our social media base grows stronger, we do get some nominations from there too. Also via mentions of CAI in the media. Most people who help us facilitate the interview (usually the children or grandchildren of the nominees), tell us about the stories they’ve heard.

Can you elaborate on the Generation 1947 project?

MB: With The Generation 1947 Project, we aim to do one simple thing. Reach as many people as we can, who were born before 1947, and who have a story to tell. It’s the only surviving generation that saw India being born. They lived in both British India (or Portuguese India, or French India, or a Princely State!) and Independent India. Their stories will die with them, and we will never be able to bring them back.

Many assume that we’re recording Partition stories, or stories of the politics of the Independence Movement. While we do collect many of those, and love doing so, what I love about this project is that we’re not limited by those stories. Most of our interviewees tell the story of how society, culture, and attitudes have changed.

We’ve had stories about everything from those who heard Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech on Independence Day, to those who remember the first piece of bubble gum they ever tried (surprisingly, a recurring theme in stories from Karachi). Oral history is used widely across the world to supplement what we can gain from written history. We’re just doing our bit to build an archive of oral history, and contribute to this effort.

As we wrapped up Mrs. Mohini Kewalramani’s interview, her husband Lekhraj came out to have a chat over homemade samosas, “My wife is a very good cook”, he told us. “She even learnt how to make Burmese food when we lived in #Rangoon.” . The couple is a riot. They’ve seen the world, lived the good life, and love telling us about the parties they would throw – balls in #Burma, mehfils in #Bombay. “I taught myself everything. Cooking, dressmaking, even English with my husband’s encouragement. You know, when I first married him, I was very scared of him. He was seven years older than me, and he was well educated. He worked abroad and dressed in western clothes. But now it’s okay. Now he’s scared of me”, she laughs, as she high-fives her granddaughter. (@rheakewal) . In this picture, you see the couple with some diplomat friends at a party in Rangoon. . Help us collect more stories like this one; go to to donate. . #TheGeneration1947Project #oralhistory #archive #Yangon #Burma #Myanmar

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Is there a story that struck a chord with you?

MB: Too many stories to count! But one story was truly human, I thought. One of our interviewees, Mr. Jayant Shah, grew up in Karachi. He was a follower of Gandhi, wore Khadi, and all the rest. However, he clearly admired Jinnah too. He went to a Muslim League rally one day to get his autograph. There was a huge crowd of Muslim League supporters that had gathered there. When Jinnah saw him and his friend dressed in khadi, he got angry and shouted at them to “Get out from here.” Not to be put off, he went to Jinnah’s house the next day, again to collect his autograph. Jinnah invited him in, apologised for his behaviour and said that that was for his less liberal followers’ benefit. He sat him down and cut an apple for him. This is possibly one of the best stories we’ve heard so far.

How does a project of this nature sustain itself? Is it funded by an institution or are you looking to crowdfund?

This project is a part of the TB Desai Charitable Trust, which is the ANP Group’s charity arm, and the money comes from their CSR budget. However, in order to expand, we’re currently looking at raising money from individuals and corporates as well. It takes Rs. 10,000 to fund one interview – which on an average includes two sessions of recording their stories and one session of digitizing their photographs, documents and memorabilia. It then takes about three weeks, one editor, and one archivist to process and catalogue this information well enough for public access. We’re also currently looking to fund more equipment, help us build a website to make our content accessible over the internet. (PS: I would like to add here that we’re a registered charity, and so any donation is entitled to deduction under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.)

What’s next on the radar? What can we expect to see in the coming months on CAI?

MB: We’re currently building an activity for schoolkids to engage with our archive and learn what oral history is all about. We’re super-excited about that. We’ve received a lot of support from professionals in the field – right from oral historians, to archivists, to museum education professionals, and we hope to do more by collaborating with them.


Other than that, we’re also starting to move out of Mumbai, and conduct interviews in other cities. We also encourage independent researchers without the necessary resources to undertake their own oral history projects to join us. A Delhi-based oral historian, Ekta Chauhan, is currently conducting an oral history project that documents the changes in and around Khirki Village, where she grew up. She works with us so her project can be archived and her research can be made publicly accessible. We can’t wait to see what this year brings!