What Archival Research in Kerala Looks Like

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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:

Neettu typical pic.png

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!)

Archive Catalog Excel Sheet.png

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. 

Devon Think Pro .png

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. 

Why is photography taboo in so many Indian museums?!

I visited the Thiruvananthapuram museum complex a couple of days back. Napier Museum (Art Museum) is one of my favorites and I never miss visiting it when I am in the city. I can never get tired of the marvelous ingenuity of Robert Chisolm's design and I would say that he did a huge favor to Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal and Malayalees by going against the Maharaja's wishes. (For this post, I am ignoring the colonial hegemonic implications of the Chisolm incident, but a short version of it is provided in a comment in my Instagram post seen below. Click on the image for more info.)

Arguably, the building itself is probably the most valuable piece of "artifact" that belongs to this museum. I have hundreds of photographs of the edifice. But, as soon as you go inside, you are warned that photography of museum displays are not permitted. To make the warning stick a veshti-mundu clad lady sternly lets me know that there are cameras everywhere in the museum that will be recording my actions. 

I have been to many museums all over India that restrict visitors from photographing museum collections. But why? I don't understand this reticence. 

After all, the collections at Napier Museum have no copyright associated with them--most of them have limited metadata, provenance research when conducted are in its very early stages. And most of the collection is from nineteenth century or earlier, except for a few pieces of furniture and Kathakali miniatures. Few of them may even be light-sensitive but as it is, there are no protective enclosures for any of these to mitigate that problem. (There is no HVAC and other moisture control systems either.) So the typical issues because of which museums restrict photography are non-existent.

In her book Participatory MuseumNina Simon points out the reasons for dissatisfaction of publics with museums and ways for institutions to recover: 

Courtesy and copyright: Nina Simon, http://www.participatorymuseum.org/read/ 

Courtesy and copyright: Nina Simon, http://www.participatorymuseum.org/read/ 

All of these points are starkly relevant to Indian museums but above all and unmentioned here, is the lack of a museum-going culture in South Asia. There are no statistics available to provide an accurate understanding of this deficiency but the mostly-empty museums all across the country is a readily visible phenomenon. In this situation, it is important that Indian museums take advantages offered by participatory activities that can bring in new visitors. 

The act of taking photography is ubiquitous to all public spaces now. With the advent of the smartphone and what is being called the "mobile revolution" in India, it is near-impossible to execute a strict no-photography policy. Then, why can't museums embrace photography and use it as a tool to make it a participatory experience? For example, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts encourages visitors to take pictures with their permanent collections materials and host it on social media. A 2013 Pew Research Center report points out that 97 percent of art organizations they polled in North America reported sharing images and using social media. This allows for more online visibility, something that is crucial to revenue generation. As importantly, such participatory exercises improve museum-going experiences. 

For (an anecdotal) example: you see on the left, the really bad photograph I took of my sister next to one of the Pollocks at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) a few years back. We took it while on a visit to the modern wing with our cousin, and my cousin and I thought she matched the Pollock painting next to her. (There could be a highly psychoanalytic discussion hiding in this photograph.) This, of course, as it always does, spawned a debate that night of whether monkeys can paint a Pollock, with my sister and I firmly on the side of Pollock's drip works. A few months later I went by AIC and bought the Pollock jigsaw puzzle as a gag-gift for my cousin, the perpetrator of anti-Pollock sentiments in the family. Now, a visit to AIC around Christmas has become a family ritual, courtesy this photograph. We have visited multiple galleries since then, have argued about our likes and dislikes, and we have come to the conclusion that only Monet prevails above all arguments.

But for a more concrete example, a presentation from the National Gallery of Denmark tells how visitors' photography and social media increased their museum's reach by 2500%. (Not kidding, that's a real statistic.)

I'll end my post here with a summary conclusion: If Indian museum administrators or people who can influence them are listening, there is no advantage to withholding photography in museums spaces anymore. In fact, such restrictions are detrimental to institutional development. However, there is one thing that museum personnel will need to take care of before letting visitors photograph their collection--dust!