Our first exhibition on ‘Fear and Vengeance in 1857,’ elicited a great response and people from all walks of life came to see it. The opening up of the archives building itself was a great lure as people wanted to see and experience the tomb of the fabled ‘Anarkali’. Through this experience we, as a team, also realised the importance and centrality of such kind of public engagement. Not only did it make the archive accessible to the larger public and made it interactive, it also enabled us to think more broadly about engagement, access and curation.
As the project progressed and we crossed the 10,000 mark in terms of files examined, we decided to put on another exhibit titled, “The Hollow Crown: Archives on the fall of the Mughal Empire”. Continuing with the theme of combining visual images from the period with text, we again chose about ten images from Charles Ball’s collection related to the fall of the Mughal Empire, and juxtaposed them with original documents. The prints covered scenes from the attack of Delhi, the devastation of Delhi and the capture of the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Made almost immediately after the event of 1857-8, these prints showed in vivid detail the happenings of the time and gave a deep sense of loss, destruction and despair.
We also showcased several original and rarely seen documents, including telegrams relating to the movement of troops, the order of the arrest of the Mughal family, a note on them immediately after capture, documents relating to their trial and the final exile to Rangoon. We also highlighted the critical role of the Punjab in the end of the Revolt where Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs were instrumental in storming Delhi to capture the last bastion of the Mughal Empire to bring about its final end. In fact, if it weren’t for Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs it would have been very precarious for the British to attack Delhi, let alone win it. The importance and role of local collaborators is therefore central to the story of the demise of the Mughal Empire.
Since I was the curator this time round, I added another element to the exhibition. I included couplets from Urdu poets from around the time and linked them with the prints and the documents, further highlighting how the fall of the Mughal Empire, the destruction of Delhi, and the general dismal state of India was lamented by the poets of the time. While some poets died before the happenings of 1857-58, the mortal decline of Delhi and its Mughal culture was already evident decades earlier.
The lament for Delhi was therefore evident in the poetry of people like Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1781), Momin Khan Momin (1801-1851), and Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq (1789-1854) who foretold the end of the Mughal and the destruction and desolation of Delhi, setting the stage for the events of 1857-8 which by then seemed like a foregone conclusion.
This despair was then coupled by works of contemporary poets like Dagh Dehlvi (1831-1905), and Qazi Fazal Hussain, who gave depth to the reality unfolding in front of them. The poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar, written in digital calligraphy, also adorned the display highlighting his own anguish and hopelessness. But the final word was left to the doyen of Urdu poetry, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869), who recognised the supreme power of the British in India. Adding further colour to these poetic renderings, we chose as background music, the poetry of Zafar sung by maestros Muhammad Rafi and Mehdi Hassan, creating an engrossing environment of gloom and melancholy.
Though we opened the exhibit in the hot and humid heat of late August 2018, the response of the public was exceptional. More people turned up to view this exhibition and it was clear that people actually wanted to engage with the historical material. During the curatorial walks I saw several people staying in the tomb for hours, looking at the prints, carefully reading the documents, and also venturing into the archive itself.
I also met some people who were intrigued to find out more about their family and ancestry from the archive, after seeing the exhibit. This is exactly the response we were looking for, as the archive is not simply a place for scholars: it is a place where anyone can come and research on anything. Since its collections are large and diverse, its remit and lure is also multifaceted. In fact, a sizeable number of people in the archives in the UK or the US, for example, are not there for academic research but personal research, on their family, issues which interest them and the like, and therefore the utility of the archive is beyond academic discourse, where it is central, but is also patent in the everyday lives of the people. We were glad that we were able to at least initiate this change of thinking in Lahore and able to open up and engage with both academics and the general public.
By the autumn of 2018, all the basic work of the project had been done. We had trained a large cohort of staff in the certificate course, created a new cataloguing scheme, organised, preserved and initially scanned over 10,000 files, and had curated a world class conference and two exhibitions on the archives. The online portal through which the scanned documents would be accessible was also almost finished and was going through the testing phase.
Therefore, we had come a long way from this project just being a dream of Dr Umar Saif in 2016, to it being realised in 2018, with rarely seen documents and papers being cleaned, preserved and digitised, and now — finally — becoming accessible. Since this was quite different from the other projects PITB undertook during the tenure of Dr Saif, I would like to really thank him and the director general who oversaw the project, Mr Faisal Yousaf, for being the rocks upon which this project has been built. In fact, if it were not for these two gentlemen and their commitment and dedication, the Punjab Archives would have perhaps rotted away, forever inaccessible and lost behind high walls, just like the fair maiden in whose tomb they are housed. It might have been poetic like that, but also very tragic.
With the groundwork laid by PITB, the main lead of the project was given to the Archives Department towards the end of 2018, as I left for my fellowship in the UK. While PITB continues to provide technical support, the main task is now with the Archives Department to ensure that the hard work of the last two years does not go to waste and that the documents do finally see the light of day through the portal, and become accessible to a wider audience.
The main aim of the project was to make the archive easily accessible with the cutting of red tape, bureaucratic delays, and other excuses, and finally enable for a more fuller, truer, and nuanced understanding of our history to emerge. The project strove to lay the groundwork for unprecedented access together with preservation of the archives for posterity, something which was achieved to a large extent in the first two years of its life.
But now the critical task is with the Archives Department to give effect to the all the work done, and continuing to be done, in the project, and officially launch the portal so that the great collections of the Punjab Archives remain just a click away.
The author is a Chevening Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. He tweets at @BangashYK and his email is: [email protected]