The moustachioed face of Dharampal Gulati, 96, is familiar to millions of Indians. The owner of Mahashian Di Hatti Spices, or MDH Spices as the company is popularly known, appears regularly in the brand’s ads and on its packaging. But little is known of his personal journey: about how he came to Delhi as a Partition refugee from Sialkot in present-day Pakistan, started a small shop in Karol Bagh, and went on to become one of the leading manufacturers of processed spices in the country.

There are others like Gulati. RV Smith’s consummate chronicles of Delhi, for instance, are beloved of his readers, but they are bound to be unfamiliar with the personal story of the 80-year-old. Similarly, Raghu Rai’s photographs of India, its glory and turmoil, have appeared in publications around the world, but who knows the 76-year-old’s relationship with Delhi as a resident.

It is to fill this gap that the state government’s Delhi Archives, in partnership with the Ambedkar University, has undertaken an oral history project to map people’s connect with the capital. The project will feature interviews of 200 people, including 20-odd prominent names, such as Gulati, Smith and Rai. But most interviewees will be ordinary residents, such as farmers, traders, judges, musicians and bureaucrats.

Launched on January 14, the project was initiated to document what defines public memory in the city, said Abhinandita Mathur, an advisor in the state government’s Art, Culture and Languages department. “We want to get the history of the public whose narrative is still unknown,” said Mathur. “We want to understand their experience of Delhi. How has the city changed for them? What are their lived experiences?”

All the material gathered for this project – audio, video and text – will be stored in the Delhi Archives, currently home to old government documents. The interviews will be available in the public domain, as the archive is being digitised.

A refugee woman being given her ballot papers after identification, at a polling station in Lajpat Nagar in 1952. Image courtesy: Photo Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Encouraging tolerance

Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who also holds the art and culture department portfolio, said the project was an attempt to bring about a shift in the current atmosphere of intolerance towards diverse opinions. “Through common experiences and shared histories, people might realise we have more in common than what those wanting to polarise our society would want us to believe,” said Sisodia.

The project will feature the stories of an equal number of men and women from various communities. Besides their life histories, they will also be asked about the music they listen to, their family recipes and other cultural traditions. In the first phase of the project, which will last two years, researchers will interview the city’s senior citizens.

According to Mathur, one of the project’s objectives is to become a reference point for academics and students. Digitisation will play a crucial role. “Dissemination is a critical point and we have to find interesting, ethical and innovative ways to do that,” said Mathur.

The ITO crossroads in New Delhi in 1950. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

But, while a few eminent personalities have been identified, how will the researchers decide who else to interview?

Surajit Sarkar, an associate professor at the Centre for Community Knowledge in Ambedkar University, said organising public events around the city will help researchers begin an interaction with likely subjects. Once that is done, the interview process will start.

“We generally start showing them photographs, old advertisements and videos of the city,” said Sarkar. “This helps them to open up and speak about an experience that they might have had in the areas where the photographs were clicked. The advertisements could make them reminisce [about] a certain time in their lives.”

Cosmopolitan Delhi, which has both rural and urban settlements, offers enough scope to include diverse narratives, says Sarkar. “[For instance], it is a lesser known fact that outside of Nagaland, the most number of Naga people live in Delhi. We want to get everyday stories about what it is like to work, commute and live in the city.”

Delhi, says Sarkar, “has seen many changes”. “For instance, the city had many playgrounds where residents could play different sports over the weekend but these grounds have gradually disappeared. Till 1935, almost every home in West Delhi had a machine to make cloth from semal silk cotton, because, at that time, it was too expensive to buy new clothes from a store.”

Photo credit: Saumya Khandelwal/Reuters

Limitations of format

This is not the first time oral history is being used as a medium of documentation in India. A number of similar projects have been commissioned to record people’s memories of Partition. But the field of study has its critics, primarily because of its subjective nature.

Sarover Zaidi, a social anthropologist who runs Chiragh Dilli, a blog about navigating spaces in Delhi, says oral history is only one aspect of ethnographic research, and because it relies so heavily on memory, it has its limitations. “Oral histories deal intensively with human subjectivity and sometimes people can be contrary, between what they say and what they eventually do,” she said. “People also choose to tell the stories, they wish to tell, and may not tell other stories.”

Aastha Chauhan, a professor at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, has worked on a similar project in which she documented the lives of families living in Khirkee, Delhi. According to her, while such histories have become much easier to archive in the historical and academic context, only an elite minority generally has access to the narratives.

Like Zaidi, Chauhan too flagged concerns about the reliability of memory. “The question of lack of recollection can occupy a dangerous space in this form,” she said. “It is a long process, where you [researcher and subject] have to form a relationship…these things take time. It has to be contextual and understandable for those who are consuming this information.”