The Miranda House Archiving Project , which aims to trace the college’s history and that of its students, inaugurated its first physical centre on Wednesday— with a twist.
The Project has utilised an unused space in a corner of its library building, with a permanent exhibit showcasing a timeline of the college’s history as well as rare photographs chronicling the lives of students and staff members.
Speaking to The Indian Express , Prof Bijayalaxmi Nanda, Principal, Miranda House, says the newly-inaugurated exhibit is an essence of the 75 years of the college’s history and reflective of “how women make spaces enabling”. The college was founded on March 7, 1948.
“Over the last few years, the archive has been digital, and now it’s in a physical form. It is a celebration of not just the college completing 75 years, but also of the act of retrieving women’s histories and making them more accessible,” Nanda says.
Dr Shweta Sachdeva Jha, Associate Professor, Department of English, said space is a huge issue in college, which led her team to consider converting unoccupied spaces into exhibits and storage areas. She says it has made history more a part of everyday experience at the college.
The project started in 2020 after Jha received a grant from the Women’s Studies Centre at Mumbai ’s SNDT Women’s University. Jha says the initial plan was to interview old alumni and former staff, with a focus on building a repository of oral history.
Members of the Miranda House Archiving Project(Image credits: Annika)
Along with this, there were several trunks full of old photos, with some being stuck on chart paper as decorations for an earlier event. There were also old college magazines, which Jha describes as “full of information, especially the pieces by students. “There were many about how you had to be good at English otherwise the waiters wouldn’t serve you, and that’s how we discovered that the college once had liveried waiters! We saw them in old photographs too, and that’s how a lot of the history was traced, a lot of dots connected.”
What excites Jha most about the project is the ability to trace different kinds of histories by creating an archive. She cites several examples of stumbling upon stories that would have otherwise remained hidden from the public eye. “In a college magazine from 1978, we came across a girl talking about a tornado hitting the city! I think Amitav Ghosh also talks about it in one of his novels. It was of course covered by all newspapers back in the day, but it’s something we hardly ever talk about anymore.”
“Then there is the history of sports,” she adds. “One of the first interviews I did was with a woman who won several awards in the ‘ Delhi Olympics’ in 1951— it was only after several Google searches that I realised she meant the First Asian Games, which were referred to as the ‘Delhi Olympics’.”
For the project, the act of unearthing private histories and placing them in the public domain has been the major founding stone as they collect and preserve photos, memorabilia, and voices connected to the college. However, it operates on a strict ethical process. No part of an interview is retained in the archive without explicit consent from the women. “There is a lot of trauma that comes out in these interviews too,” Jha says. “Through this, we can look at issues like sexual harassment in public spaces, the history of women’s transportation in the city from DTC to the Metro, what it feels like being a minority, the linguistic divide, etc.”
Gorvika Rao, Assistant Professor, Department of English, says the most difficult part of the work is actually tracing the women. “Their names change. They have their father’s or family’s name in college, and afterwards, they go by their husband’s name. It’s not something a Google search can solve, but we keep trying to track these histories through what we have with us.”
Jha says, “After Kodak and the phone camera, perspectives changed. Now, women have the freedom to employ their own gaze to understand their own bodies, and document their own experiences… earlier, all we had were studio photographs. But even then, there were women photographers. I found Brijender Sangha, and through her a whole history of travel we never knew about. She and other women photographers travelled to various places abroad, and photographed them… it’s fascinating to note the shift between the male gaze and the female, especially now.”
Devika Gupta, an alumna from the 2017 batch of English honours who has been associated with the Archive since the beginning, says the Project, which started out in the peak pandemic time of 2020, also made it easier for the students who were suddenly detached from the college or those who had never even entered it to connect with it. “It was a great way of having that solidarity and that belongingness which otherwise you only get when you are here,” she says.
So, what’s next? “The plan is to start some kind of workshop with professional archivists to possibly train students,” says Jha. “It wouldn’t just help the Project, but also expand the students’ skill sets and open up a new career option for them.”
“We are building an archive with students,” she adds. “They tell us what they find interesting, which reminds me of why it is so important for me to save every little thing that I find. The newer generations that come in will understand themselves by looking at the past. It’s very important for people to build their own stories, that’s what’s at the heart of it all.”