Eminent, young, all doors are open
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, popularly known as Teenmurti Library among scholars, has become a research hub on the crossroads of history
Shaikh Salim Mirza, the protagonist in MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa, is a fictional character based on an unpublished story by Ismat Chugtai of a north Indian Muslim family who refuse to leave for Pakistan during Partition. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, prominent Congress leader in the freedom movement, persuaded many Muslim families to stay back.
This, among many other meticulous details, is available via a note of his personal secretary, HN Masud, now stored as a transcribed interview at the prestigious Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in Delhi. Thus, to place it simply as an institutional repository of 2.5 lakh books and over 1,000 collections of personal documents of the leaders of the freedom movement, is to understate the unique character of the precious archival section of the NMML. After the National Archives in Delhi, the NMML has the largest collection of personal correspondence, government documents, an extensive vernacular newspaper collection on microfilm, and transcription of interviews in the oral history section. This has meant that the NMML has emerged as a necessary rite of passage for scores of researchers and students of modern history from across universities in Delhi and the rest of India.
The NMML is dedicated to the objective of preserving, recollecting and reconstructing the history of the anti-imperialist struggle in India. It has an in-house publishing programme, a museum, an archival section and a library. Arguably, it is the archival section which is at the heart of the NMML and its legendary project.
Students and scholars, however, could benefit from better access to the archives. Plans to digitize the archives had begun as part of a modernization grant of Rs 20 crore received by the NMML in 2009 from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The process will resume once again when “protocols for quality of the highest level for archives are in place,” says Dr Mahesh Rangarajan, Director, NMML. At the moment, over 20-25 students access the archives per day. “We are considering a tie-up with Yale University in view of the successful digitization of their archives. In the long run, we hope to develop in-house capability for the digitization of the archives. We are hoping that the National Informatics Centre (NIC) will help us in this regard,” he adds.
Under the current director, the Tuesday seminar array, another milestone, has seen a relentless series of vibrant discussions, rigorous research work and workshops of high academic quality. Apart from well-known academics, many younger, brilliant scholars have been given a chance not only to speak, but to design these seminars as well.
In the realm of subaltern history, two conferences on Deccan and Northeastern history will be conducted, among others. The upcoming list of seminars and public lectures will have upwards of 48 speakers from the Northeast; attendance has seen an increase. Next year, in 2014, there will be close to 40 speakers on social sciences who will also give presentations in Hindi. Dr Mahesh Rangarajan spoke to Hardnews.
Our remit is the study of modern India in the widest sense. The effort is to retain history at the core but in a wider sense promote historically oriented ways of thinking
The NMML has an excellent archive on the Independence movement and modern Indian history that has been of use to research scholars and students. How will NMML improve access to the archives, for example, through a tie-up with various universities,and so on. How far has the digitization of archives, begun in 2011, progressed?
Our tie-up is with scholars and students, there are no formal MoUs with universities. This model has worked well since 1964, but we are trying to send out the message that we are open to all. We probably have the largest number of regular seminars on Indian/South Asian history/society, an archive with 1,500 private papers (with figures as diverse as Nehru and Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan and Guru Golwalkar, Savarkar and Madhu Limaye). This is a hub and a crossroads where people meet in a very friendly milieu. Digitization will resume once protocols for quality of the highest level for archives are in place.
Can you tell us briefly of the activities and events you have planned for the coming year?
The centrepiece is the 125th anniversary of Nehru’s birth. There are two one-day workshops and a two-day conference. The schedules will be ready. The museum redesign will be in full swing, and the Children’s Centre, now energized, will work on out-reach.
The NMML conducts a series of interesting seminars and public lectures. Topics range from Mughal India to ecology to tribals in contemporary India. How do you decide on, say, a major theme for discussion and related speakers, keeping in mind questions of contemporary relevance?
The Tuesday seminars are about ongoing research and we cover the broad gamut of history and the social sciences. Our remit is the study of modern India in the widest sense. The effort is to retain history at the core but in a wider sense promote historically oriented ways of thinking. The lecture series reflects this. In 2013 we had India and the wider world. Next year, it’s India in transition. This year, rethinking history. Next year, cities in history. One criterion: speakers are scholars, eminent, young, all doors are open. Each of the 30 fellows speak once a year. We have had 6,500 people at our talks since January, about the number that came in all of 2012.
I have attended a number of public lectures and seminars at the NMML. The discussion could benefit from wider participation and a publication. While it was promised that public lectures would be uploaded in an audio/video format, this is still awaited.
Audio links of public lectures are up. Video will start soon. The NIC is taking over the website and you will see rapid changes. I might add that we will soon upload 30 plus papers and by year-end, twice as many. They are either by our fellows or by those who spoke at NMML and will be free with copyright of the author.
Regional universities in India also conduct important research on the Independence movement, sometimes using vernacular archives. Would the NMML consider holding its lecture and seminar series at these universities, if it has the funds?
No. There is one NMML and it will remain so. We are open to and encourage collaborations with scholars. Please note that of the 650 speakers since August 2011, one-third are from outside Delhi. We have done conferences with scholars from TISS, Mumbai, and IIT, Guwahati. Such tie-ups are the domain of other important organizations: we want people to come here. Our doors are open but we will focus on what we do best.
I am sure there are excellent regional and central universities across the country. There are very good platforms for them set up by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and in our own domain by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). There is no point duplicating that work. It is also best to work with scholars rather than go down a highly top-heavy route.
The museum has been the beneficiary of funds for a modernization programme. What are your plans?
There was an in-depth review completed in January 2012 of the modernization programme. It was found that it is better not to have a separate programme, it should be integrated fully with diverse aspects. Some key elements like digitization were revisited. Film restoration and digitization are complete.