A review of the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai (Maharashtra), India.
The Maharashtra State Archives is a major resource for academics interested in the study of colonial western India. It is conveniently located in the heart of downtown Mumbai, and has recently undertaken efforts to protect its collections through digitisation. My first encounter with the Archives was in March 2009, when I undertook a short visit to research the history of the movement to create a separate linguistic province/state for Marathi-speakers in western India during the 1940s and 1950s. I was to return for much longer periods in the summer of 2011 and January/February 2012, as part of my doctoral project on the same theme.
In the space of that time, there had been a new incentive to digitise and preserve the collections. Previously, accessing the archive’s extensive stockpile of files had been an often trying and sometimes disquieting experience. Particular records might be missing or, more worryingly for historians concerned with documenting the past, crumbling pages could disintegrate in your hands. Upon my return, efforts had been made to begin resolving the issue. The newspaper collection was temporarily off-limits, whilst each individual file was painstakingly scanned and readied for scholars to access in an electronic format. With permission from the archivists and for a small one-off fee, visitors were now also able to photograph individual files themselves, either with their camera or smartphone.
However, there is still plenty of scope for further improvement. A computerised catalogue that could be accessed online, thereby allowing scholars to effectively plan their trips in advance, would enhance the usability of the Archives immeasurably. There are also future plans to relocate the Archives to a new fully air-conditioned building in Bandra, in the Mumbai suburbs.
The Maharashtra State Archives primarily contains over 500,000 files relating to the expansion, governance and termination of British colonial rule in the Bombay Presidency. The documents date right back to the seventeenth century and the earliest phase of English East India Company rule in Bombay, ending somewhat abruptly in the immediate postcolonial period.
Diaries from the eighteenth century focus on the commercial activities of the Company in western India, mainly covering the purchase of Indian goods for export and other Company investments in Surat and Bombay. Some also contain interesting insights into early relations between the British and the Maratha polity, in which the British appear as supplicants. In December 1751, for example, representatives of the British Committee in Surat fired on a Maratha vessel, believing it belonged to the “pirate” Toolajee Angria. Realising their mistake and concerned about the potential for retribution, they asked the Bombay Government “to reconcile this unfortunate mistake with the Maratha Government”. Later diary entries trace how this relationship was re-calibrated during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as new departments emerged to cope with the administration of annexed Maratha territories.
After 1820, diaries were replaced by proceedings as the primary means through which to document the activities of the Government of Bombay. Scholars interested in the nineteenth-century history of Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Sindh, all of which once formed at least part of the Bombay Presidency, will find an array of information on the politics, society and economy of these regions within these documents.
Furthermore, the Maharashtra State Archives is a useful repository for anyone interested in the history of the Indian Ocean arena, particularly the relationship between India and the Arabian and East African coasts. For example, the Aden Settlement (now in modern-day Yemen) was under the administration of the Bombay Presidency for almost 100 years (1839 to 1937).
From 1920 onwards, records are maintained in the form of files. Of particular interest here are the Home (Special) Department files, which contain insights into the non-Brahman movement in Maharashtra and Karnataka, cover both M.K. Gandhi’s and B.R. Ambedkar’s efforts to rid Dalits of the stigma of “untouchability”, and reflect on the results of the 1937 provincial elections in Bombay. For those scholars concerned with the transition to independence in western India, the Political and Services Department files contain some pertinent records on matters relating to the reorganisation of Bombay on linguistic lines, the merger of princely states, and the recruitment of Muslims and other minorities to the provincial administrative services. The Archives also contain provincial legislative assembly debates (1921-1970) and government gazettes (1831-).
Besides English language governmental records, the Maharashtra State Archives holds a range of English-, Gujarati- and Marathi-medium newspapers, which cover around 150 years of print capitalism in western India, from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth century. Newspapers available include Kesari (Marathi), Janshakti (Gujarati), and the Bombay Chronicle (English).
Beyond the colonial archive, there are a number of private papers collected from the prominent families of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Maratha polity. Files written in Persian and the notoriously difficult-to-decipher Modi script provide a wealth of information on fitna (the term Andre Wink employs to describe the drawing away of allegiance, or the practice of sedition). Meanwhile, the private records of the Raje Mane Daftar document the activities of the Mane family of Mhaswad in Satara District, and reveal how they were rewarded with revenue rights and titles for switching allegiance between the rulers of Bijapur, the Mughals, and the Marathas in the late seventeenth century.
However, as a site of knowledge production primarily based on colonial governance, the Maharashtra State Archives does not hold many other vernacular documents, particularly for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Scholars looking to engage with Marathi-language materials for this later period would be better served visiting the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya, on MMGS Marg in the suburb of Dadar.
For the moment, the Maharashtra State Archives are situated within an imposing building that simultaneously houses the prestigious Elphinstone College, whose alumni include such luminaries as Dadabhai Naoroji, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bhimrao Ambedkar, and Arjun Appadurai. The college is located on Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road in Kala Ghoda, downtown Mumbai. Designed in the mid-nineteenth century by the architect James Trubshawe in the Romanesque Transitional style, the building was also part funded by the Parsi philanthropist Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney. His grandnephew, Sir Cowasji Jehangir, founded the Jehangir Art Gallery that sits across the road and serves as one proximate local landmark for the first time visitor. Another nearby attraction is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (previously known as the Prince of Wales Museum). The easiest way to reach the Archives is to ask any local taxi driver to take you to what is locally referred to as the “museum”. Other well-known visitor sights and attractions, including the University of Mumbai, the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace, are all within a short walking distance.
Access and Obtaining Materials
Accessing the Archives is a relatively uncomplicated process. Upon arrival, scholars should present a letter of introduction from their academic institution to the director of Archives on the first floor. Foreign citizens also require an introductory letter from their embassy. Barring any complications, access is then immediately provided for a fixed-term period (subsequent visits require a new application). The director or another member of the archival staff will provide scholars with one of the few rather dog-eared copies of The Hand Book of the Bombay Archives (compiled in 1978) for general perusal. Upon identifying which of the particular secretariat departments seems to provide the most promising avenues for further exploration, scholars are then provided with catalogues to consult for the particular departments in which they are interested. These contain the individual names and numbers for each file, which can then be ordered using a requisition form (or “slip”). In my experience, staff were reasonably quick at locating and delivering records, but it is preferable to order a number of files at any one time. Some archivists and their assistants speak a limited amount of English and greater amounts of Hindi, whilst others only speak Marathi.
The Archives are officially open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday, although it is possible to arrive slightly earlier and stay slightly later if you already have files ready to use. Scholars frequently leave files out overnight at their desk so they can simply resume where they left off with their research the day before. It is worth asking the director about any impending festivals or state holidays, when the Archives are almost invariably closed. On particularly wet days during the monsoon, limited staff numbers can lead to a reduction in requisitioning services.
Restaurants and Cafes
Regular visitors to the Maharashtra State Archives are mourning the loss of Café Samovar, a favourite haunt that was located across the road in the precincts of the Jehangir Art Gallery, and which closed in March 2015. However, there are still many places to eat and drink in the vicinity. The bustling Colaba Causeway, with its shops, cafes and restaurants, is only a five-minute walk away. The take-away kebabs and baida rotis from Bademiya, on nearby Nawroji Furdunji Street, are a good option for those in a hurry to get back to the Archives. For sandwiches and pastries, try The Pantry, located on Rope Walk Lane, a less-than-five-minute walk to the northeast of the Archives. Those looking for something more filling should head to Café Military, a restaurant specialising in Parsi cuisine such as dhansak and kheema pao. It is located on Tamarind Lane (M. Shetty Marg) in the Fort district, a five- minute walk north of the Archives.
Department of History
University of Exeter
Image: Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, India (photograph by the author)
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