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Ode to a bygone era

Ever held a page with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s signature on it? Not a facsimile, a photocopy or a printout but an actual A4 size sheet that dates back to a newly-independent India, and was signed by the first Prime Minister of India? The ink has dried a long time ago, the issue has been long forgotten, but one can’t help but feel the significance of the moment.

Governor  K Sankaranarayanan
Enthusiastic supporter: Governor K Sankaranarayanan

History has come alive at Raj Bhavan. The glorious complex that houses the residence of the Governor of Maharashtra is now ready to welcome ordinary citizens interested in the history of the state with the formation of a brand new division, the Raj Bhavan Archives.

For the past three years, a group of researchers has been quietly working together to compile and collate official documents that date back to 1930. These documents had been stored haphazardly in a couple of rooms at Raj Bhavan till it was decided that it was time to put them all together and create an archive to preserve these important historical documents, if not history itself.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Y B Chavan and Sri Prakasa
A new beginning: Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Y B Chavan and Sri Prakasa unveil the map of the new state of Maharashtra on May 1, 1960. Pic courtesy/Raj Bhavan Archives

Deputy Secretary to the Governor, Muthukrishnan Sankaranarayanan, revealed, “The Raj Bhavan archives project was conceptualised in September 2009. According to our initial estimates, there were about 5,000 files. 

Many of them were lying in storerooms. The weather conditions of Mumbai are such that these needed to be preserved properly in a scientific manner so that we could make the records available to those interested in them.”

Muthukrishnan Sankaranarayanan
One phase down, more to go: Muthukrishnan Sankaranarayanan 

Thus began the project, aimed at “consolidation, pagination and indexing” of all the files. It was a daunting task but thankfully, the state government sanctioned a grant of R26 lakh for the project. “The first phase was to process all the documents and put them in order. That is now complete,” he said.

Ashok Kharade
Hard worker: Ashok Kharade Pics/Bipin Kokate

Tough task
It was not a painless procedure though. As Ashok Kharade, chief research officer points out, all the files that were found have been classified. Kharade has been with the project since its inception. With 40 years’ experience as an archivist with the Maharashtra State Archives department, the veteran was chosen to spearhead the indexing process.

A letter written by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to the then Governor of the Bombay presidency, Sri Prakasa, about the formation of the state of Maharashtra
Priceless: A letter written by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to the then Governor of the Bombay presidency, Sri Prakasa, about the formation of the state of Maharashtra

“In the first phase, we have catalogued all the administration files. There are 5,068 ‘A’ class files and 142 ‘B’ class files. All these files are very valuable,” says Kharade. As Yashraj Gandhi, a research assistant at the archives explains, ‘A’ class files are those that are most valuable, while ‘B’ class files are lesser valuable than the ‘A’ class ones.

King Thebaw of Burma
A king no more: King Thebaw of Burma was exiled by the British to Ratnagiri at the age of 26

Then there are ‘C’ class and ‘D’ class files which are correspondingly of lesser importance. “Going through all the documents and sorting them was the most difficult part of the process,” says Gandhi. However, it is definitely worth it. It takes assistant Hemant Yeraji just 10 seconds to retrieve a file mentioned in the catalogue from the correct rack.

Lost art
Browsing through the 265-page catalogue makes one wonder: why will anyone be interested in these archives when there is so much information out there on the internet? Explaining why the archives are important at a time when Googling has become a norm and poring over documents has almost become a lost art, Kharade said, “Every file is important.

archives room
The keepers of history: Hemant Yeraji (left) and Yashraj Gandhi (right) oversee the files in the archives room

This is information not available anywhere else. These are primary sources. We have correspondence between presidents and governors, prime ministers and governors, and between governors. The documents reveal the economical, political, law and order and even family planning situation in Maharashtra.”

Governor K Sankaranarayanan, the driving force behind the project agreed. “In today’s age of knowledge revolution and Right to Information, I thought Raj Bhavan should also open up its vast treasure of information relating to Maharashtra to the people. I do hope that the archival records will bring to light the silent yet significant role played by the institution of the Governor in the making of modern Maharashtra and in the welfare of the people of the State. The archives will also help bridge critical gaps in information on issues of public interest,” he said.

Added Muthukrishnan, “We felt that keeping the records to ourselves is not of much use. Students and historians who might be doing research in that area can use it to fill gaps in their research. We have created a catalogue of files from 1930 to 1991-92. People can check it, note down the number of the file they are interested in and look at the concerned file here.

They can even photocopy the documents.” He admits that the primary focus has been on putting all the documents in order. “We’ve not really gone through each and every page. Many of these files are administrative files, and since we belong to the same set up, we may not find it to be very new while anyone from outside the set up, who has a different perspective might find it new.”

Fact file
Despite that, there is a file that has caught the imagination of even Muthukrishnan. It contains documents pertaining to the correspondence between the first Governor of Maharashtra, Sri Prakasa and Govind Ballabh Pant, the fourth Home Minister of India. The letters date back to 1958-59 and bring to the fore the problems of the descendants of Bhutan’s exiled ruler, King Thebaw. Sri Prakasa visited Ratnagiri in December 1958 and met the granddaughter and great granddaughter of the late king.

They had married a fitter and a clerk respectively and were living in abject poverty. Sri Prakasa wrote to Pant, asking him if they could somehow help the women. Initially, Pant said that all he could do was give them a lumpsum of R1,000 from his discretionary fund, but he doesn’t really think it will help them much. Nine months later, after much back and forth of letters, the women received R3,000.

There are other interesting nuggets of information hidden in these files too. There is an entire set of documents that record in minute detail all the events that were organised as a run up to the official proclamation of Maharashtra’s statehood during the night of April 30-May 1, 1960 when, at the stroke of the midnight hour, Pandit Nehru announced the formation of Maharashtra as a separate state.

He did so while standing in an open space in front of the Governor’s Secretariat and between the Banquet Hall and Darbar Hall at Raj Bhavan. The ground is now barricaded but the tree that stood witness to the historic moment still stands.

Interestingly, the building that houses the archives room has its own history. It used to be a stable for the Governor’s horses during the British Era. With horses no longer used for transportation, the structure was converted into a set of rooms. Bang opposite the archives room is the helipad — the modern day replacement of a stable.

The archives room is also home to a very important letter written by Sri Prakasa to Dr Jivraj Narayan Mehta, the first Chief Minister of Gujarat, and dated May 6, 1960. It is especially prophetic as it foresaw the linguistic problem that Mumbai is facing today. The state of Maharashtra was created by separating it from Gujarat, and that was something that Sri Prakasa was unhappy about.

He wrote, “I wanted very much that the name of Bombay should be kept on for Vidarbha is particularly angry that it is not included in the new name of Maharashtra. Bombay could mean both, but Maharashtra decidedly envisages only the old conception, and does not necessarily include all Marathi-speaking people. I also see the danger lurking ahead of the stratification of linguism. However, we have to take things as they are, and make the best of them.”

Expert advice
The project also benefited from the expertise that an advisory committee provided. Headed by Sadashiv Gorakshkar, the committee guided the archivists on several aspects of the establishment and functioning of the archives. Vrunda Pathare, chief archivist at the Godrej Archives and a member of the committee said, “While it is not very difficult to get documents pertaining to the colonial period, you have to really hunt for documents in the post-independence period. In India, there is not much awareness about preserving documents from the contemporary period (1950s onwards).

The Raj Bhavan Archives is a repository of records — both colonial and contemporary — that speak about the history of the state and the creation of Maharashtra.” Adds Gorakshkar, “I came across these documents when I was researching for my book Raj Bhavans Of India in 2002. I suggested to the then secretary to create an archives to preserve them. I am very glad they took my suggestion seriously.”

Next stage
Ever since it opened on September 3, the office has received several enquiries about visitation but there haven’t been hordes of people crowding the room. That doesn’t faze any of the officials involved and they are sure it will pick up slowly. The work on the archives will continue to go on.
In the second phase, they will look at how to store these files permanently using a combination of three different methods.

>> One method will focus on increasing the lifespan of the paper by storing it in acid free boxes and compactors.
>>Another process is microfilming. Huge files can be compressed and stored in small microfilm rolls.
>>The third way is to scan the files with optical scanner and OCR scanner so that the files can be searched using keywords that are in the documents even if they are not in the title of the document.

Once the digitization process is completed in a year’s time, all the files will be available on Raj Bhavan’s website for the public to browse through them at home. History is being revived and for once, the common man can be a part of it. Walk into Raj Bhavan and let the awe-inspiring documents transport you back to the time when India was on the threshold of monumental change.

Hassle-free process
If you wish to visit the Raj Bhavan archives, just drop a mail to archives.rajbhavan@gmail.com three days before the day of your intended visit. In the e-mail, include your contact details, the purpose of your visit and if possible, the files you want to look at (the catalogue is available on rajbhavan.maharashtra.gov.in). The archives room is open from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm, Monday to Saturday (except the second and fourth Saturdays of every month). Entry is free.

Did you know?
>> The first woman minister of Maharashtra was Nirmala Raje Bhosale, who was sworn in as the Deputy Minister for Education on May 1, 1960.
>> The last British Governor of Bombay, Sir John Colville, left India with Lady Colville and his entourage only on January 6, 1948.
>> Fyzee Rahamin requested the British government twice for permission to open an art gallery in Mumbai in 1945, but was turned down since all efforts were concentrated on the Second World War. The next year onwards, plans for Sir Cowasji Jahangir’s Art Gallery began to take shape.
>> Nawab Ali Yavar Jung and I H Latif are the only father-in-law and son-in-law pair to become Governors of Maharashtra 

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