Kolkata Urban Archive: Archives All The Way Down

By S Bharat  |  October 1, 2019

This article is the first part of a three part series reflecting on the archiving process undertaken to create the Kolkata Urban Archive. Access the second and third  parts. 

Even where archives strive to fill gaps in our collective memories, retrace the expulsions and silencings that produced the conditions of possibility for the present, the form of the archive is sedimented with past archives in two fundamental ways. Firstly, the “matter” the archive gathers together are themselves the creations of this process – they are a documentary trace whose raison d’etre resides in mnemonic protocols, and the archive is itself a manifestation and a production of absences and ruptures – what constitutes the present archive is produced by a series of omission/commission decisions; it is so in the present, with the materials available, and then going further back in the past, each time the material was deemed “worth keeping”. I will attempt to explore this framework through a genealogy of the form of the Kolkata Archive in the genealogy of the Unnayan papers – the system that produced them, the forces that assured their survival into the present, and the manner in which they have been accessed and curated. In other words, I will be attempting a reading of the archival imagination at work here through the archival imagination of Unnayan. 

Formed in 1977, Unnayan recognised the importance of documentation at an early stage in its life. Unnayan’s shift towards documentation happened in step with its shift towards activism and community organisation. An information documentation centre called the Jana Tathya Kendra (JTK) was formed. It was based out of the Unnayan library and comprised of two core components: the library and newsclipping section and the publishing and outreach efforts (mobile library, Barta Patra, publications and digests). 

The Library and Newsclipping Section

Unnayan maintained a well-stocked library with books, articles and journals, all indexed author and subject-wise, as well as a large collection of newsclippings on topics related to Unnayan’s work, such as housing, eviction, labour, law, litigation, hawkers, transport. The library was open to the public and became a popular resource point for researchers, especially those working in planning and architecture, and for foreign scholars visiting the city. Books were acquired through grant money, from foreign trips, and through networks of activists and scholars across the globe. Unnayan also maintained a collection of video recordings and documentary films.

The newsclipping section had a particularly important role to play in guiding the work of Unnayan. The organisation received valuable input on things happening in the city, on imminent demolitions and evictions, through such newsclippings. Each day three English newspapers and several Bangla newspapers were read and marked, and those marked articles would subsequently be cut and pasted on a sheet and then put into a file maintained chronologically on that theme. The cuttings were assigned a code, which contained the name of the newspaper, the date of the publication and the theme or subject of the article. Staff was assigned specifically for this purpose but the accumulation of a huge backlog was a recurrent problem with the newsclippings section and on several occasions temporary staff was specifically hired to clear this backlog. 

Publishing and Outreach

The JTK was also responsible for the publication of reports by Unnayan and its collaborators. From time to time the JTK also put out digests of newsclippings. In 1986, in complement to the work in squatter communities and the drive to get them ration cards and their names on voters’ lists, a mobile library was started, and then a newsletter for the communities called Barta Patra, which means newspaper. Each issue had a theme or a particular location it was on. Benedict Anderson has famously suggested that newspapers are one of the key devices through which the imagined community of the nation is produced. The newsletter was one of many ways in which a “squatter citizen” was being imagined and positioned to claim ownership of the city. The Chinnamul May Day Rally and the Convention at the Indian Association Hall are two other deeply symbolic gestures through which the squatter community came forth as a political constituency. The May Day Rally was meant to signal solidarity with workers’ movements, a particularly powerful gesture in a city like Calcutta, especially with the Left front government in power. The second, the CSAS Convention, was held at the Indian Association Hall, which was where the first meeting of Indian nationalists took place in the 1880s, around a hundred years ago. A “squatter citizen-subject” is imagined in this way by drawing out deep affinities with the past and a shared consciousness in the present. 

Unnayan Filing System

Besides the work done by the JTK, Unnayan had a detailed and meticulous documentation culture which extended to all aspects of its work. Workers at Unnayan conducted surveys, drew maps, held meetings and exchanged letters. Community workers made weekly visits to their sites and submitted reports. All these activities were meticulously documented in triplicate – an original Letterhead version, a Yellow copy for the Person File which held all the correspondence to and from that person and other papers concerning the, then a Green copy for the Project file maintained for all the documents relating to a given project (multiple green copies were made for multiple projects), then a Pink copy for the Master file which held all typed matters and correspondence chronologically, whether it fit into one of the other files or not. Additionally, there was a card system for the contact details of everyone in Unnayan’s network, in Kolkata, elsewhere in India, and abroad. 

NCHR Campaign Clearinghouse

When the National Campaign for Housing Rights was launched in 1986 Unnayan became the Campaign Secretariat (CS), as well as its Campaign Clearinghouse. The Campaign Clearinghouse would receive and disseminate materials relating to the campaign. The main function of the CS was correspondence, filing, record-keeping, managing accounts and mailing copies of the NCHR newsletter Housing Struggle. Regular correspondence was necessary to maintain the nation-wide network of actors and agencies that composed the NCHR. T As the NCHR grew, its information and documentation function grew as well, and demanded increasing amounts of Unnayan’s manpower and time. Yet, ambiguity prevailed over the actual use of all that documentation within the organisation, itself becoming the subject of meetings and memos. 


While many of the documents at hand had their provenance in the mnemonic protocols of Unnayan as outlined above, my access to them is mediated by another set of forces and desires. Unnayan’s archive and collection were severely damaged and depleted when they were evicted from their office premises at Garcha Road. I was told by several former employees that the files were thrown in a pond. What could be salvaged was extracted and dispersed amongst members. Even before that the archive saw attrition as several departing employees took with them files that documented their work and interests. The claims to ownership over those files articulates the desire of these former-employees to safeguard their narratives. Activism involves a great deal of labour (emotional, mental, and physical), it also involves something more, it requires the investment of desire in certain hopes, convictions, and dreams – and the documents are indices of that narrative. 

The present archive exists at the intersection of these two forces, the institutional drive to document and disseminate and the personal drive to recuperate and memorialise. The archive is also perhaps a solution to a deep ambiguity. The personal drive to recuperate and memorialize is not sufficiently served by the personal preservation of documents. As time passes they find themselves caught between a reluctance to destroy them and an inability to house them. You rescue and preserve something from oblivion, and then you realise to be truly preserved it must go back into the world in a new form. It is as if, in the cupboards and attics of their homes, the documents exist in a state of extended suspension that can only be resolved when they are rehoused in the archive. 


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