Telling India’s Story Through Pictures: The Indian Memory Project

Anusha Yadav aims to trace India’s personal history as far back as the 1850s through an online visual archive.

4 min read

Photographer, curator and photo archivist Anusha Yadav, founder of The Indian Memory Project, is tracing India’s personal history as far back as the 1850s through an online visual and narrative based archive.

Anusha Yadav aims to trace India’s personal history as far back as the 1850s through an online visual archive.
Pictures and stories go hand in hand: Anusha Yadav (Photo: Anusha Yadav) 

Initially, I wanted to do a book on weddings, and use pictures from people’s albums to document the wedding traditions of India, because that’s where everything comes out. Families get together, their ceremonies, jewelleries, clothes, you name it. If you want to see India at its glory, look at its weddings, and every kind of wedding too. Different cultures, from Assam to Gujarat, North to South.
– Anusha Yadav (Founder, The Indian Memory Project)

As she began sourcing old pictures of Indian weddings from people’s albums, she got a lot more than just wedding photographs. “I’ve learnt, people are not very good at instructions, but that worked out to my benefit,” she tells us, as she had an influx of photographs giving her a small glimpse into India’s glorious past. With these pictures, she started to piece together the jigsaw of India’s political and social history, and The Indian Memory Project took flight.

As a photographer herself, this project is very close to Anusha’s heart for many reasons.

My own memory of my late father, who was an amateur photographer, was to look at all the pictures he took, and my mother told me the stories behind every picture. For me, pictures and stories go hand in hand.
– Anusha Yadav (Founder, The Indian Memory Project)

Through personal photographs, Anusha has managed to draw political context, social relevance and ideologies, and paints a beautiful portrait of every dot on India’s timelines. As she tells us about one of her personal favourite collections, “The last silk route trader was something I found fascinating, as it revealed unique cultural values that are so interesting to learn.”

Anusha Yadav aims to trace India’s personal history as far back as the 1850s through an online visual archive.
Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945. (Photo: Muzammil Hussain Munshi, Kargil, Ladakh)

Munshi Aziz Bhat, born in 1866 in Leh, was a Kashmiri Brahmin from Kishtwar, who converted to Islam during the Mughal period. As one of the last great silk route traders of India, his story traces this forgotten road of history, and reveals the role of Kargil which, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route. As Muzammil Hussain Munshi’s account tells us, “An important stop on the ‘Treaty Road’ from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’.”

Anusha’s passion for archiving comes from her love of photographs, which aren’t just visual moments, but tell a much larger story. She refers to photographers as the ‘cultural police’ who arranged props, people, status symbols, and imagery to create the story they want to tell. She tells us that her favourite part about photography and history is that “there’s no one perspective. You will always keep refining your point of view, and everyone has a different one.” Inspired by her own history teacher, who went beyond textbook knowledge and taught through storytelling, Anusha strongly believes in the emotional aspect of history, and its power to connect with people.

Any story well told is what people will remember. It’s an emotional moment, and I think history told through stories will have a higher retention power than just textbooks, dates and facts.
– Anusha Yadav (Founder, The Indian Memory Project)

Emergency, partition, the struggle for independence - these are all more than just events, they were a part of people’s lives.

Anusha Yadav aims to trace India’s personal history as far back as the 1850s through an online visual archive.
Chameli Devi Jain and Phool Chand Jain, Delhi. Circa 1923. (Photo: Sreenivasan Jain, Journalist, New Delhi)

While this young couple’s brave resolve to hold hands in public in India of the 1920s is an instance of cultural rebellion apparent in this picture, their story speaks a lot more about their rebellious spirits. As a freedom fighter supporting the Satyagraha movement, Chameli Devi Jain, a gentle woman luminous in crisp white saris, spent four months in Lahore Jail in 1932. And her husband, Phool Chand Jain, played a role in the bomb thrown at Lord Lothian, another act of uprising against the British rule.

Open dialogue about historical events is usually limited to academic accounts of such happenings, and archives such as the Indian Memory Project give us an emotional connect, that help us humanize the characters in India’s glorious and complex history.

(The author is a graduate of St. Xavier’s College, and is based in Bombay, working as a features writer in the digital space.)

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