I mainly discuss decorative arts of Kerala and related visual/material culture on here (see my page on objects) but a lot of my current work involves analyzing and interpreting thousands of pages of archival records gathered from state archives in Kerala and the APAC archives at British Library in London. (I have more Dutch records that I collected from Tamil Nadu State Archives awaiting me, and I am petrified about reading these eighteenth-century records with my rudimentary knowledge of early modern Dutch.)
Kerala State Archives (central archives have two wings in Thiruvananthapuram - one at Nalanda at the Archives Directorate and the other at the central archives in the Fort area) has been a surprisingly pleasant experience in that the directorate's permissions for access and photography is one of the easiest I have encountered in India. Kerala's archival records are also some of the better catalogued and archived of the institutions I have come across in the last five years.
That said, recovering information from these records require a good reading proficiency in Malayalam (older twentieth-century script) including Malayalam numerals, fractions, and particular words that are now outside of the modern vocabulary. In this post, I have picked a simple Neettu record (royal writ) to show how I work with archival records. My intention here is to approach the records "against the grain" as Ann Stoler says, to gather information about furniture and decorative objects used in Travancore palaces and related buildings. Neettu records at the Central Archives (Fort) are largely from the nineteenth century, although there are a handful from as early as Marthanda Varma's reign.
Below, I provide the original transcription of an ola record at the archives and demonstrate my process of interpretation. (The original ola written in old Malayalam are practically unreadable and you cannot get permission to access them.)
I spent my first few days going through their many catalogs to find records that I thought were relevant to me. Once I had them indexed, I went through the list photographing all the pages one after the other. Each day, I jotted down which volumes I covered and then uploaded them on the cloud. Here's what a fairly good transcription (in thankfully a readable handwriting) looks like:
Since I live abroad and have limited research time in Kerala, I don't interpret these records immediately, I skim them to get keywords that I input into my index along with relevant dates so that I can look them up easily later. This is what my index looks like on an excel sheet (they are color coded in a very confusing way but they work for me!)
When I start working on a particular record, I find it easier to first transliterate the record using Google Malayalam online writing tool. Writing it makes it easier for me to understand the text more than merely reading does, and once it is all typed in neat Malayalam with all the Malayalam numerals converted to English, it is far more easier to access. I then transfer the information from Google to the database I maintain for my research (I use DEVONthink Pro Office). On the same document, I also complete a rough translation of the important parts of the text in very simple and rather curt English so that I can access information quickly when I have to write my chapters. As soon as I create a new archive record document, I tag it with all the important words in the text which makes the document more searchable, and any large group analysis much easier.
Here's the gist of this Neettu: Maharaja (from the date provided in the record we know it is Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma) in 1847CE orders an ivory palanquin to be built for him.
A new palanquin is to be built for the king from the Maramath department by Kulathoorāan Perumal who has sent an ōla requesting 17.25 tulam (1 tulam = 10 grams) ivory as well as for other miscellaneous materials including gilding brass ormolu ornaments for which a cost of 7159 panam has been asked for. For this purpose, the amount of ivory mentioned must be supplied from the palace and money for transporting the ivory, for the workmanship, and other miscellaneous expenses has to be procured from the treasury and palanquin production speedily completed. This money is to be asked from Narasimhan Thampi who is in charge of the treasury and a letter has been sent to him in this regard. This money has to be entered into the account and this information has been passed to "Shraappu" Subba Naik as well. This note has been sent with all the instruction to Dewan Krishna Rao on 1024th year of the Malayalam Era, in the month of Vrischika, on the 27th day.
Note: This is not an exact translation of the Neettu. I have approximated (I just learned that this is an actual, usable word!) and simplified it for ease of access.
PS: If you would like to see more of these notes or other tools I use for research, let me know in the comments.