Tanuja Kothiyal teaches history at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is the author of Nomadic Narratives – A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert, which examines the processes of settlement in Western Rajasthan.
I first visited the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner for the first time as an MPhil Research Scholar in 1995. After I gingerly filled a requisition slip for the index register, the in-charge of the research room placed a thick bahi in front of me, to browse, while they found the index. I struggled with an unfamiliar script, which after a while seemed like a string of old nagari letters without a break. This was a sort of test, I realized much later. Once the in-charge realized I intended to stick it out, help came from several unexpected quarters, from, someone who would help me read the script, someone who would know the exact bahi which contained references to the routes I was looking for, someone who would let me in to the cavernous stacks to hunt for the exact basta that could not be found.
Research in an Indian archive is never a fully impersonal, professional exercise. A researcher’s journey through the archive is full of personal vignettes, reminders of each stage where the research appeared futile or took a definitive turn. The old research room at the Archives in Bikaner was like that. Attendants would point to the chairs where Satish Chandra and later Dilbagh Singh sat. The monotony of poring through records would be broken by the 4 o’ clock call to the pigeons which would signal the beginning of the end of the day for employees of the archive and yet another struggle for the researchers who wanted to stay on till 6:30.
Over the years the research section has shifted to a new state of the art air conditioned room, with computers to examine the digitized copies of old records. Few records are now ferried from the old stack rooms, which seem far better organized than before. Yet, it is a place where old and new, coalesce and clash, with each record containing within itself histories, sometimes contentious, of acquisition.
The idea of an archive of records and manuscripts was itself located in reimagining of princely states as both, subjects of historical research as well as modern bureaucratic enterprises. The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed a rise in interest in fashioning of a ‘self’ by the princely states, leading to collection and organization of manuscripts and records pertaining to royal families. However, most of these records and manuscripts continued to be lodged within different princely states, until a reorganization of the state of Rajasthan was achieved in 1952, and a modern archive for research into history of the new state conceptualized.
The brown and red Rajasthan State archive building is itself a part of the modernizing project of Maharaja Ganga Singh, a vision so visible in the Junagarh fort museum, with the World War I DH-9DE Haviland war plane acquired as a war souvenir in 1920 as a pièce-de-résistance. When it was built in 1934, the building was expected to accommodate the Government Press. However, a part of it was converted in to the Rajasthan State Archives in 1955, to store and make available for research, records of older princely states and the former Chief Commissioner’s province of Ajmer-Merwara that were amalgamated into the state of Rajasthan.
These records, ranging from a period of mid seventeenth century to 1952, are in various Rajasthani dialects, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and English. These records pertain to state orders, accounts of taxes levied, of purchases and expenses, correspondence between officials, as well as appeals made by common people. While the earlier state records are in form of bahis written in various forms of mahajani and modhi scripts, the nineteenth century records are in form of files, and organized according to departments like Railways, Salt, PWD etc. It is difficult not to be impressed by the neat rows of red bundles in the stacks of the Rajasthan State Archives in Bikaner. These bundles humble a researcher by reminding her of the vast bureaucracy that stored away little facts from the seventeenth century onwards, to be ferreted and made sense of later. However, a number of old princely state manuscripts and records are still retained by the old princely families and are accessible only through contacts with the families.
A large number of manuscripts are also located in the libraries and institutions like the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute and Rajasthani Shodh Sansthan in Jodhpur, Anup Sanskrit Library in Bikaner, Pratap Shodh Sansthan in Udaipur etc, as well as in some private collections.
The state archive however, does house a Tessitori gallery dedicated to the Italian Indologist and grammarian L P Tessitori, who was employed by Bikaner, and collected a vast range of manuscripts and wrote copiously about them. The archive has acquired some correspondence between Tessitori and the Bikaner state, though most of Tessitori’s research notes and correspondence was transferred to his heirs and is located in the municipal library at Udine.
The Rajasthan State Archives also has an Oral History Division which contains interviews of several freedom fighters. The library attached to the Archives houses a collection of reports from the mid nineteenth century onwards, like Annual Administration Reports, Survey Reports, Census Reports, Reports of Famine Commissions, as well as gazetteers and travelogues. It is also a rich repository of historical books and vernacular journals published in Rajasthan.
As I pointed out earlier, research in the Rajasthan State Archives is never a mere professional experience. The mere fact of visiting the research room itself creates a camaraderie, based on ability to access the archive. The town itself has little to offer beyond the tourist attractions, and the researchers tend to spend most of their time in the archive itself. A few years back it used to offer a dormitory for male researchers, but the facility has been withdrawn for sometime now. Female researchers are however expected to find private accommodation, though guest houses, hostels and hotels. Food remains a concern for people not used to spicy and oily cuisine.
With increasing digitization it is now possible to view indexes, as well as some records online, but without visiting the archive, and poring over records in the old fashioned way, it is difficult to imagine writing a history through those records. I say this not merely out of nostalgia for the archive and archival research, but from the experience that archive, its assembly, arrangements, rules of access, hierarchies, all have their own histories that have to be experienced and incorporated into the histories that we write.