Are we guilty of neglecting the importance of archiving in the performing arts?

The costume that Balasaraswati wore or Shambhu Maharaj’s anklets: where are these preserved? In India, archiving has never been taken seriously

Archiving is a relatively new concept in India. It may be about preserving your grandmother’s heirloom sari or the costumes of a dance luminary like Uday Shankar or just documenting one’s artistic journey. What it requires first is intent, then technique and, increasingly now, technology.

When Deepthi Sasidharan, director of Eka Archiving Services and co-author of Treasures of the Deccan, realised that the headdress she had found in an archive had an Indian connection (it belonged to the trustees of the Ram Gopal Estate), she looked some more, and found pictures of the legendary dancer Ram Gopal in performance wearing the same headdress.

“Scattered across archives and visual museum databases (in the U.K. and elsewhere) is the story of Indian dance,” says Deepthi. “Pictures may be somewhere, the story somewhere… but collections of Indian dance objects are predictably not accessible in India.” In fact, possibly one of the best archives of Indian dance is to be found in Jacob’s Pillow dance centre and performance space in Massachusetts, U.S.

Deepthi was talking at a session on ‘Archiving the Performing Arts,’ organised by Shreya Nagarajan Singh Arts Development Consultancy. She went on to speak of a veteran Indian dancer who, she discovered, had used lycra under her costume during her heyday to make it easier to move.

Every dancer has his or her own secrets to reveal, unseen belts and hooks perhaps, and each such insight adds significant bits to the history of dance. Having worked with the Kalakshetra Museum in its documentation and conservation project, Deepthi is aware of the value of a historical archive.

Dancers must record their journey and their unique contributions. As Deepthi points out, it is individual efforts that can build a historic archive. Even two cupboards of material can disseminate information about a dancer’s practice and preserve it for the future.

While artistes indeed hold the paraphernalia of their art, the actual process of archiving must ideally be undertaken either by the state or by art philanthropists. In India, this has been sadly neglected. NCPA in Mumbai is a good example of a serious private archive in India, supported by a trust, while the government-run IGNCA and Sangeet Natak Akademi have also made some efforts in the area. Chennai’s Kalakshetra museum is another good example.

Archives can also be private efforts like the Mohan Khokar collection (see box), now acquired by the IGNCA in Delhi; or the extensive archive for dancer Chandralekha that is coming up in Chennai.

The process

Archiving is a process of collecting, assessing, prioritising, sorting, organising, storing and maintaining anything unique, of historical or other value. The main highlight of a formal archive is that it is not just a collection. The pieces must be identified, photographed and dated, and their location and ownership established. The collection should be valued, stored and insured, if necessary.

A good archive, for Deepthi, is one where something is traceable in four to five minutes from among lakhs of pieces. Once tabulated, collections become accessible and can even be monetised in many ways.

Artistes are often not aware of what can go into an archive. The list is endless: paper documents (handwritten notes, sketches, manuscripts, diaries, ephemera such as tickets, etc), photographs (albums, negatives, films, recordings on VHS tapes, etc), digital material (pen-drives and phones), costumes, props, jewellery, instruments and other memorabilia. Deepthi’s advice is to start small, say with a drawer, a shelf or an envelope. If objects are fragile, like yellowing newspaper cuttings, it is best to digitise them or bring in a professional. It is important to use gloves to protect old photographs or to protect oneself when handling old, deteriorating material.

Indrani Rehman
| Photo Credit: 03dfr indrani rehman

Expert help

How one preserves archival material is crucial and that is why one needs expert advice. Organic material like paper and cloth absorb moisture, so they have to be preserved in places where temperature and humidity is controlled. The adverse effect of light on paintings, textiles and photographs is well known; as is the damage done by air pollution. Some of the methods used to safeguard old things are just common sense, but it’s easy to go wrong. Deepthi gives the example of a well-intended maintenance measure that proved destructive some years ago. Miniature paintings in a big museum in India were placed in varnished frames, and the fumes from the varnish crept into the paintings and destroyed many of them in one go.

For home archives, conservators recommend archival-grade boxes, sleeves and acid-free tissue. Alongside storage, it is important to maintain information about each artefact. In 20 years, artistes are unlikely to remember the details they recall clearly today.

Maintenance is vital. Two factors cause damage: environmental factors such as dampness, humidity, variation in temperature; and biological factors such as insect and fungal attacks due to foodstuff brought into storage areas, poor ventilation, damp walls, or basement storage rooms.

Going digital

One of Deepthi’s co-panellists was Shaleen Wadhwana, an independent arts and heritage professional, who marries virtual reality techniques to traditional archives. Shaleen speaks of the challenges of creating a satisfying online experience, especially when you have to get noticed in the visual overload online. The initial focus will probably be directed towards creating new income models, creating virtual residencies, exploring virtual ways of practising the arts, and recreating classrooms and festivals online.

Yamini Krishnamurthy

Some important digital initiatives already exist, for example, the Creative Commons Public License. Shaleen spoke of how artistes share their work under this licence, making it part of a collective ownership that allows it to be used freely with some conditions. There is also the online ‘Museum of Material Memory’ where people share personal memorabilia and stories.

For dancers, the storage of costumes is of particular interest. Deepshikha Kalsi, materials conservator and consultant and founder of Textile Conservation Studio, suggested in her talk that costumes be stored flat, with crease lines supported by rolls of archival tissue. The whole should then be wrapped in tissue and covered with unstarched cotton and stored in special boxes. “This will give it a shelf life of about 50 years, but storage material will not last more than two years if humidity is high,” said Deepshikha.

Archiving technology has gone far ahead in the West, while we remain indifferent about preserving the past, preferring instead to wallow in sentimental nostalgia. Serious archiving requires not just intent but also funding. As Deepthi points out, “There are many 16mm recordings of old dancers lying unseen because digitisation is too expensive.”

The country possibly has mountains of material on dance, but what we don’t have is an understanding of the value of archiving it.

The Chennai-based author

writes on classical dance

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