A review of the State Archives of West Bengal (Kolkata, India).
Researching the river Ganges during the 18th and 19th century led me along Kolkata’s College Street in early August 2015. For a month, past pavements of old books, under lines of jeans trying to dry during intermissions in the monsoon, I added myself to Kolkata’s stock of commuters and emerged from Central Station for a short walk to the discrete doors of the State Archives of West Bengal. For here, on No. 6 Bhawani Dutta Lane, parallel to Mahatma Gandhi Road, are held records of the words and ways of the British Government between 1758 and 1900. Further post-1900 files, including visual records of the Intelligence Branch, are split between the ground floor of Writers’ Buildings and the New Functional Building, 43 Shakespeare Sarani, although the collection’s recent reorganisation has left things slightly wayward.
Up on the second floor of the building, above the much needed conservation unit, in a glass panelled room, a manual registration process precedes any invitation to make use of the material. The website provides an application form which must be downloaded before arrival and accompanied by the signature of a referee. All the better if this is someone affiliated with an Indian institution. Two passport photographs, official passport identification and a letter from your embassy will, after a day, enable entry into the research room. Sharp presentation of this paperwork will ever endear you to the room’s custodians.
Historians enthused by the oscillating, isolating, frustrating and Derridean experiences of archival forays will thrive in this research room. The research room is open from 11am until 5pm from Monday to Friday, with the exemption of public holidays. Pressurised hours can be spent combining the pasts of the Judicial Criminal Department, Revenue Department, the Provincial Council of Revenue, Board of Revenue, Marine Department, and Judicial Department–amongst other Finance and General Departments.
Given the 142-year time span of the collection, department names inevitably changed; and whilst the modest indexes handed on arrival assist navigation of this uneven terrain, it is advisable to discuss your research topic with Dr Sarmistha De and Bidisha Chakraborty. These archivists, who diligently manage the collection, are willing to point researchers in some sort of direction, usually the “Miscellaneous Department” index, which freely circulates along with ones for the Finance Department.
Seeking advice is best done in person on registration. Emails and phone calls are often unanswered. Prior consultation of their publication, Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2014), is also helpful. So is the volume they have co-edited, Select Documents on Calcutta 1800-1900 (Calcutta: Directorate of State Archives, 2011). This is available in the research room on request. Although these books provide a good entry point into the material, an experience in these archives requires flexibility and patience. What is noted in the index is not always held on the shelves. B type proceedings are often unavailable and occasional volumes have inexplicably disappeared. Yet, as most South Asianists will know, cultivating a methodology of spontaneity is part of research.
Patience and persistence is well rewarded by fast document retrievals, often within 15 minutes. Requisitions are by paper forms available in a small box in the archivist’s office. Although these are officially limited to two items per request, they can increase during quieter periods, and at such times files can be kept out overnight. Requests are not taken during the official lunchtime (1-2pm). The rules of the research room, however, have a tendency to fluctuate. The number of items permitted per day unexpectedly changes, so it is worth keeping watch for new signs and taking time to talk to the archivists. Whilst the condition of the records may suggest a liberal attitude, researchers are expected to treat the material carefully, leave their personal belongings (including mobile phones) in a locked almirah, and are definitively not allowed to take photographs without permission. Permission to take photographs can be sought from the Director and, on approval, is charged at 10 rupees per page. Photocopying is apparently available; however, given the delicate nature of the majority of files, I would not rely on this service.
In any case, time spent translating these frequently indecipherable scripts onto a laptop is a far more entertaining and valuable experience. The incessant whirring of metal fans, the shouts from street protests and religious parades, the chorus of researcher’s splutterings, coughs, sneezes and the room’s ecology form an intrepid academic. Biro lids can be fastened to pages to stop them flapping. Water bottles, which are allowed, can help with the dusty atmosphere. If you are precious about your computer, perhaps revert to pen and paper, for the unrecognisable orange entrails of the records have an affinity for collecting on keypads and screens.
Facilities are basic and, although there is a discrete water purifier, it produces a frustrating trickle of dubious fluid that occasionally was tinged brown. It is perhaps best to bring your own bottle of Kinley along with food, which can be eaten on sofas outside the research room. There is a casual hotel offering thalis at the end of the Bhawani Dutta Lane, otherwise a variety of stalls serve chowmien, french toast and bhel puri along College Street. These are best avoided at peak times (1-2pm), when the street is inundated with students from Presidency and Calcutta Universities.
Despite being so close to these Universities, the resources are relatively underused, with a maximum of five researchers at any given time. For those unable to visit, it is unfortunate that the website is little more than a holding page. While there appears to be an effort to digitise the collection, online material is not forthcoming. However, given that inconsistency is the hallmark of this institution, what I have written may not be the case right now.
Department of Architecture
University of Liverpool
Image: The banks of the Hooghly near Kumortuli (photo by author).