2019, October, Workshop in Madison

Document readings from family and institutional archives

Nandini Chatterjee

This post has been some time in appearing, but better late than never!

On 17th October, we organised a small full-day workshop on the sidelines of the annual South Asia Conference at at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The event was titled: Family and Institutional Archives in South Asia: Document Reading workshop. 

Our state purpose of the event was: to introduce several different family and institutional archives, both in terms of their various contents and as whole institutions, discuss methodological approaches to archives, and consider the history of archival practices in light of these particular collections. Rather than formal research presentations, we decided to emphasize a nut-and-bolts format of reading together that would introduce the group to the styles and contents of documents in each archive. In addition to giving a brief overview of the archive in question, such as through a descriptive list or spreadsheet, each participant was asked to walk the group through a selected document. During their sessions, participants were also invited to comment on their chosen methodology in approaching the archive, including how they have made sense of its order and structure and how they have sampled or collected data. Each participant was given about 45 minutes to introduce the archive they were discussing and lead the group in reading one document from that archive.

We aimed to contextualize our presentations through discussions throughout the day and at the close, thinking together and comparatively about how our materials contribute to an understanding of historical archival practices.

The participants included project team members: Fahad Bishara, Nandini Chatterjee, Elizabeth Thelen and Dominic Vendell; as well as Naveena Naqvi, Samira Sheikh and Zoé Headley.

It turned out to be an intense and highly rewarding day, with presentations, among other things, on the enormous collections of letters, commercial scraps and memorabilia of Kuwaiti mercantile families  (Bishara); shared archiving of records between a landed family and a temple in 18th- and 19thc- Maharasthra (Vendell) and the archives of a Rajasthani Sufi shrine (Thelen). It also led to discussions with Zoé Headley, the anthropologist among the historians, who has done pioneering work in curating and preserving family collections of records in the Tamil-speaking region of southern India. We are looking ahead to a further meeting in Paris in May 2020 together with her!