How digital archives in India are celebrating personal histories (2024)

There is a story behind everything. Digital archives in India are assisting personal stories to enter public discourse. By archiving unique entities such as houses, objects, tattoos and the oral word, they lend importance to the common people’s history.

Delhi Houses is an Instagram page archiving modern houses in Delhi. Curated by archaeologist-art historian Anica Mann, it preserves the organic way of living in Delhi and its architectural language, lest forgotten. From Greater Kailash to Kamla Nagar, houses with diverse stories have been documented. A red brick house at West End, a Jaisalmer sandstone house in Malviya Nagar and homes with unique architectural styles have been featured. “Any privately commissioned post-colonial house until 2011 qualifies to be in the archive,” says Mann.


“As the weather turns the change in curtain routine is observed in every home,” says a Delhi Houses Instagram post. According to her, the houses of Delhi respond to the city’s climatic conditions and the people’s cultural habits. “For people inhabiting a densely populated area like Uttam Nagar, the act of throwing down a basket tied to a rope to pick up vegetables is a part of the culture. When one lives in a posh south Delhi (Nizamuddin East) bungalow open from all sides, putting chiks in the balcony is how Delhi people keep their houses cool,” says Mann, “The individuality and the hyperlocal response of how to live in a city like Delhi are being forgotten, and Delhi Houses attempts to archive that.”.

How digital archives in India are celebrating personal histories (1) Indigenous tattoo art on a woman’s hand (Credit: Shomil Shah)

Mann says that Delhi Houses are not only about the architecture but also the inhabitants, who are “custodians of the architecture.” “I always seek out houses with a grandma sitting with stories, some of which can be quite moving” she says. If numberless stories surround a structure that people inhabit, the objects residing in those structures must also have stories to share.

Tracing the histories of the Indian subcontinent and its families through objects is an archive of material culture – Museum Of Material Memory. Co-founded by Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra in 2017, it includes “heirlooms, collectibles, and objects of antiquity.”

“The initial idea for the museum came from my research on objects that migrated during Partition, but the museum goes beyond that,” says Aanchal, oral historian and author, “It tells stories about cultures through everyday objects, both the valuable and the mundane. These objects explore the relationships that people across generations have with them and the memories attached to them.” Navdha, a social impact and development sector consultant and a ceramics artist, says, “We aspired to construct an engaging platform that allows democratic access to art. The museum is more than just crowd-sourced and enables people to be authors of their family history.”


The museum houses 145 archived stories with the first being titled “Letter from Tollygunge.” It includes household objects such as brass utensils used in Durga Puja and heirlooms like an ivory surmedaani that became a part of bridal trousseaus of four generations. They try to look for unique objects, such as the tiny lace crimper belonging to someone’s grandmother who was into embroidery and handloom. Navdha adds that her favourite archived story is that of a game called Pachisi, the traditional form of Ludo. “The contributor wrote about how multiple generations had played that game and everyone kept making their own rules,” she says.

How digital archives in India are celebrating personal histories (3) Pachisi, Sepoys, Cowries- My Grandparents’ Tabletop Story (Credit: Deepshika Paspunuri/Museum Of Material Memory)

Archiving also enables dialogue between grandchildren and grandparents. This connection between generations became the reason for the establishment of The Citizens’Archive Of India (CAI). Their founding donor Rohan Parikh started CAI when he lost his grandmother before his daughter’s birth, and realised that his daughter would never listen to her stories.

The CAI is an oral history archive that documents stories of people who have seen India become an independent nation and the country we see today. Their flagship project is The Generation 1947 Project which preserves personal histories of people born before 1947 who lived through the huge socio-political transformation.

“A common person’s story is as much history,” says Malvika Bhatia, the archive director of CAI. “From the freedom movement to World War II, some recurring themes in interviews include education, growing up, holidays, and social and infrastructural changes,” she says. A story she found interesting was of Raviprabha Burman. “In her sasural in Calcutta, every woman had to cover her head with a shawl over her sari. But on 15 August 1947, her uncle-in-law said that all women would go out to celebrate today and no one would cover their heads. From then on, the culture of ghunghat in her household faded away,” says Bhatia. It pointed to the idea that it was not only about freedom for a nation as a whole but also about personal freedom.


How digital archives in India are celebrating personal histories (4) An interview for The Generation 1947 Project at CAI. (Credit: The Citizens’ Archive Of India)

The ideas of generational dialogue and storytelling through tangible entities amalgamate in the story of The Indian Ink Archive, which documents traditional tattoo art indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, which was once widespread, eventually stigmatised, and now disappearing. “It all began when my mother told me that my great-grandmother had tattoos. I was amazed as I had no idea that tattoos existed in my family,” says Shomil Shah, a Mumbai-based tattoo artist.

Launched in 2021, Shah runs the archive on Instagram. It is dotted with photographs of indigenous markings on aging skin. Some common tattoo motifs include trees, scorpions, Krishna’s Gopis, chariots, and dots to ward off the evil eye. Every language has a word for tattooing which Shah uses to identify different tattooing styles. In Hindi, tattooing is called “Godna” while in Kutchi it translates to “Trajva”. A Tamil woman with “Pachai Kuthal” in a video on the page says that these tattoos are the only things to accompany one in the afterlife. “In some rural areas, middle-aged women with tattoos can still be found, but the younger women, unfortunately, are choosing not to get tattoos,” says Shah, “A girl of Indian descent from Trinidad was fascinated by a tattoo on her grandmother. After her death, she and her cousin got the same tattoo to honour their grandmother.”

How digital archives in India are celebrating personal histories (2024)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Nathanial Hackett

Last Updated:

Views: 6024

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nathanial Hackett

Birthday: 1997-10-09

Address: Apt. 935 264 Abshire Canyon, South Nerissachester, NM 01800

Phone: +9752624861224

Job: Forward Technology Assistant

Hobby: Listening to music, Shopping, Vacation, Baton twirling, Flower arranging, Blacksmithing, Do it yourself

Introduction: My name is Nathanial Hackett, I am a lovely, curious, smiling, lively, thoughtful, courageous, lively person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.