Indian Memory Project: A Trip Down Collective Memory Lane with Anusha Yadav

Indian Memory Project: A Trip Down Collective Memory Lane with Anusha Yadav

“The power of nostalgia is to be able to go back and remember something good and personal in your life, that reflects back into doing something positive in the current circumstances. There’s also reminiscing - stimulating your present circumstances with a motivation to do something, mostly positive.”

Photographer, photo archivist and book designer Anusha Yadav’s contextualisation of the power of nostalgia is swift, unrehearsed and conveys its extensive impact and influence on her own life quite evidently as subtext. Working as an independent photographer since 2006, Anusha Yadav founded the Indian Memory Project in 2010, an online visual and narrative-based archive tracing the personal history of the Indian subcontinent in an evocative and novel way - through images found in family and personal archives, spanning cultures, professions, regions and circumstances. Over the course of the past four years, her curated collection has created quite a stir amongst photography enthusiasts, history buffs and, really, anyone prone to bouts of nostalgia, with the detailed notes that accompany the photograph providing a quietening and profound context that’s like a portal into a time machine (a highly coveted commodity throughout this conversation).

Having recently admired her work at Sensorium Fest at the Sunaparanta in Panjim recently as a physical installation, Homegrown caught up with the lady behind the project to gain some insight into one of the most interesting efforts we’ve come across at conserving collective memory through the aggregate of countless personal recollections.

 “I do believe that certain memories have the ability to influence the current generation of Indians - especially those that are politically motivated,” she tells us. “Collective memory is one that bonds people and starts to nurture the past, it is almost the same thing as nostalgia; it is generally positive. Some memories which are powerful in collective memory, such as the Partition of India, and that everyone can appreciate - such as the simplicity of life, are the things that have the ability to influence you. You don’t need much materially to live a happy life. When you hear memories of love, and stories of people surviving against all odds – that’s the power of memory, despite its flaws. There are always many truths to one story. But it is these stories that satiate the curiosity that a lot of us experience while growing up - the curiosity that makes you question why you didn’t know something particular in your family, or in history as a whole, before.”

”This project has drastically changed my perception of India’s history,” Anusha confesses. “All the Indian history that I was aware of had come from Indian textbooks, that generally serve political needs, not personal ones. I believe that there is a great sense of pride when you can change your own opinion about something, especially when it comes to something this important. This country is crazy! It has been through so many different and varied events and circumstances – it’s really surprising when you think about how little documentation there is of us over the time, which is why a lot of beliefs are now being challenged. For example, I come from the third generation after Partition - the generation that dealt with partition was too busy recovering from it and surviving it, to cry about their trauma, which is why we were the ones who dealt with it. We were around for the Emergency and the Gujarat riots, some of the key moments recently that have been documented, but they didn’t have similar resources. For example, there were an overwhelming number of people who lost out on two years of their education during Partition with all the war and bloodshed, as colleges and schools were shut. Hardly anyone is even aware of something like this; two years is a lot of time.” 

So where is it that this love for archiving stems from?
”It’s probably just innate curiosity and a huge hunger to learn from other people,” Anusha answers. “It just doesn’t get satiated. I like to know the context to each photograph because a lot of art begins to make sense because of context. This idea was always – photographs have a story, it’s right there in the margins of the frame. Looking to the past was a huge part of my personality. I was brought up in Jaipur, and there would always be these old photo albums at home. I started imagining myself in these pictures, like I was time-travelling. It was pretty much an imaginary situation – to get to know the people that apparently my parents knew, through the stories I heard. Photo and story definitely go hand in hand.”

Along the way, having explored so many memories, we wondered if there were any that Anusha sensed not enough people in India were aware of, but was of the opinion that it was imperative that they do.

”Some stories take time to gestate,” Anusha ponders. “Sometimes I post a story, and it only really gets any real attention three months later. A memory that a surprising number of people are unaware of is that of the Silk Route – this quite surprised me, that so many people don’t know about it, having been the backbone of the Indian economy at the time. I learn a lot myself, as the posts come along and it just makes me that much more aware of how much hasn’t been documented; I can hardly claim to know everything, but I believe immensely in the power of storytelling – and in recognising that we have so much to learn. Another interesting memory I stumbled upon was the one of the winner of the 1970 Miss India crown, with the backstory relating that it was the photograph that was presented for the swimsuit round, the contestant didn’t walk up on stage at all. This is the power of stories, to tell us so much about a certain time and convey the existing code of ethics.”

Since our conversation has rife with personal memories, we asked the curator herself which of her memories she felt were responsible for certain traits within her.

”When my father passed away, the only way I could relive his presence was to relook at photographs. My dad was an amateur photographer, and he really emphasised on the story behind the photograph and how imperative it was. He believed staunchly that every photo must have a story even if it’s an abstract landscape.”

We probed into her decision to partake in the activities at Sensorium Festival in Goa recently and ask for the story behind that.

“It was very simple,” she replies. “Prashant Panjiar was a part of it, and when he asked – it was a no-brainer. The moment I knew it was in his hands, I understood that it was going to be sophisticated and classy. The venue was breath-taking and I have immense respect for each of the participating artists, also very aware of the amount of respect their work was being presented with. It’s important to respect peoples’ stories and present them with pride – you can learn things only from those people that you have respect for. It was a complete honour.” 

“Macondo is the show at Sensorium that was my personal favourite at Sensorium this year,” Anusha relates. “Fausto’s work was basically a room full of love; there is no other way to describe it, it was pure love. It was beautiful work, made with a lot of sensitivity. He took his time to do it, and it was also beautifully set up and designed to bring out the work to its full effect. That’s the power of images, when a show is executed as expertly as this.”

Displayed at Sensorium as a physical installation, stepping out of the screen where it has generally been viewed, Anusha shares of the experience of seeing it in 3D, “We chose certain images and edited the text a lot; it was really great to see the images in such huge sizes, and the impact they had that way. It gave people a sense of the project just by walking around those 15 photographs and their corresponding stories, as opposed to reading the 145 that are there online. Installed offline, Indian Memory Project was art.  Online, it is an archive for reference. The fact that it can do both is a great thing, and an interesting power.”

Another example of the power that photographs can wield over us, we asked her about some of the main cultural aspects of India she has observed a huge shift in from the photographic evidence she has been collecting.

“There were very few frames before, whereas now we have access to an unlimited number thanks to digitization,” she says. “What has also changed has been the role of the photographer – anyone can take the photograph today, and it’s lost its exclusivity that was associated with it before. Everybody dressed up to take a photograph earlier, it was always a special event before, a photograph was an occasion. Whether it was a wedding photograph or a portrait, it was also generally a symbol of familial ties. I had two centuries of photographs to discover and 2014 is the context to life that I started out with. I really wanted to see how different it was. We believe life was simpler then – there’s a grace, a kindness that we like to imagine there was in the past.”
With someone so close to the theme of nostalgia, we couldn’t resist asking – if she could time travel, which era would she choose?

“Definitely the Flapper Era, 1920’s. I just love the idea of it, it would’ve been great to see what life was like then. I’d love to see it for myself, and maybe show them something they wouldn’t know about at the time,” Anusha is dreamy, and undeniable very taken with the idea. “There is a little childish pleasure at having surprised people and giving them joy by showing something they didn’t know about before, sense of validation and approval. The music of the Flapper era was also amazing, and really showed how the world was changing. Of course, I would like the time travel to lead me straight into Paris during the era (laughs)!” 

Our family and friends at Juhu Beach 1941

Much closer home, we’ve heard Anusha discussing before about Indian women and how they sort of developed an alternate identity at home, not having been able to do so otherwise. We asked her to shed a little more light on this ‘arena of role-playing’ and its scope today.

“Women would do that because they had someone to trust at the time – they could be whoever they wanted to, with the help of someone else; the photographer also played the role of the confidante, who wouldn’t reveal what happened in the studio to dad. That’s where the role changes now – we’re our own cultural police today, and we don’t need a photographer to tell us how to sit and stand, thanks to the selfie or the digital camera. Nowadays, this only happens in fashion or studio photography per se. We are more revealing about ourselves and share our lives all the time. A lot of people did this ‘role playing’ at the time though, some even had alternative names and there was a markedly heavy cinematic influence. Women wanted to be what it was like to be a person in film, it was how they explored their freedom of expression within themselves. It was very interesting to note the composition of the photographs as well, and their social implications. In the east, women would stand while in the west, women would sit down in the photographs– what intrigued me about this was the power dynamic behind it. In Bangaladesh, those in the family who handle the money would sit, and there were some baffling anomalies such as Rajasthani couples from the most conservative families holding hands.”

Having won us over into her highly engrossing and predominantly black-and-white world of stories and memories, she winds up by summarising what photographs can convey that the written word cannot, “A photograph is a great starting point, and it is the written word that takes it forward; that’s where the story or the imaginary movie comes in. It is the photograph, though, that sets the context and starts you off on a visual journey.”

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