A South Asian Archival Treasure Trove in Digital Form: Hip, Hip, Hooray!

David Arnold, whose title is more restrained in South Asian History & Culture

The publication of the South Asia Archive creates a vast new digital resource for students and scholars of the South Asia region. Ranging very widely across the arts, humanities and social sciences, and also notably incorporating science, technology and medicine, the Archive incorporates extensive visual material and ephemera as well as sample text material from a huge array of published sources, from books, magazines and journals to dictionaries, institutional reports and committee proceedings. Although the Archive does not provide a complete set of many serials and multi-volume items, it does demonstrate the richness and diversity of readily searchable South Asia materials (especially for the period 1800–1950) and should serve to encourage and inform fresh research in several important areas.

Whether the study of South Asia has been inhibited by the want of an extensive digital archive is hard to tell without an extensive trawl through the sources available to scholars of other regions. But, impressionistically at least, one is often led to envy, if not to marvel, at the ease with which historians of, say, sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries England can turn to a wealth of digitized pamphlets, tracts, visual material and state papers and can use this material for their teaching and research. South Asia has, by contrast, lacked such a resource – at least until now. Through the highly laudable initiative of the publishers Taylor and Francis, the two editors-in-chief Boria Majumdar and Sharmistha Gooptu, and the supporting efforts of a distinguished international advisory board, South Asia now has its own digital archive, giving access to some five million pages of primary and secondary material from novels, film posters and religious tracts to trade directories, census reports, government acts and serial publications of various descriptions. The material broadly covers the period from the eighteenth century to the early 1950s, but this includes editions and translations of works of much earlier date such as the Ain-i Akbari and the Adi Granth. Topics highlighted by the archive include agriculture and environment, cinema and media studies, commerce and industry, education, gender, history, law, religion and philosophy, science, technology and medicine, sport, leisure and tourism, and urban studies, but since it is possible to word-search the entire archive, as well as to browse specific serial runs like the Calcutta Law Journal, Sankhya or the Indian Cricket Almanack, the reader is not confined by those topic groupings (though it is difficult to word-search once a particular source has been selected).

ain akbari As one might expect, the bulk of the material in the South Asia Archive is in English, but with a substantial number of items in Bengali and, in rather smaller numbers, in Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi and other South Asian languages. Although the majority of documents relate to pre-1947 India, there is some coverage of Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Tibet and other neighbouring countries. Law cases, dictionary entries and gazetteer articles are easily located and accessed. The pictorial material is an especial delight – not just for individual items like film-posters and cinema publicity material but also for the way in which maps, photographs, colour illustrations and even advertisements have been faithfully reproduced, retaining the integrity of the original text, rather than being omitted as too ephemeral. Some of the images are simply stunning (I was particularly struck by the full-colour geological map of Nagaur in Rajasthan in the Asiatic Journal for 1830, surely one of the earliest maps of this kind for India), and these visual materials do much to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the South Asia Archive as well as its undoubted utility. The same is true of the inclusion of indexes as well as tables of content wherever these existed in the original. Occasionally, one comes across a book or document that has retained the mark of its old age or misuse – a missing half page, an obscuring library or high-school stamp, or the ravages of white ants, but this lends archival character to the source and reminds the reader of the materiality – and frailty – of the original, pre-digital source. The visual clarity of the documents is admirable, and can be enhanced by zooming in and scrolling down the page. My only major reservation about the technical aspects of production is the relatively slow fade in as one moves from one page to the next, or from one ‘hit’ to another, which is a strain on the eyes unless one looks away for a moment and refocuses afresh once full definition has been attained. This makes it hard to read – especially to speed-read – as freely as one would with a physical book, but, given the sheer size of many of the texts and the time needed to download them, this is perhaps an unavoidable inconvenience.

It is, of course, possible to question the inclusion of some items and the absence (or merely fragmentary presence) of others. Is there much to be gained by reading Fred Barrie’s Rajput fantasy novel (from around 1900), Helen of Chitor? Or the seemingly slight 1918 tract entitled America through Hindu Eyes? At times this feels more like stumbling into a long-abandoned library, with all its unculled clutter, rather than entering a conventional archive (for an interesting account of the often obscure locations in India in which the material was found, see Gooptu and Majumdar (20131. Gooptu, Sharmistha, and Boria Majumdar. 2013. “The South Asia Archive.” South Asian History and Culture 4 (1): 126–143. doi: 10.1080/19472498.2012.750461 [Taylor & Francis Online] View all references, pp. 126–143).

Some works seem, superficially at least, of little merit, though arguably subject matter, historical context and authorial voice warrant their inclusion. Perhaps, the very eclecticism of the sources and the lack of superimposed order or meaning is a virtue to be commended and might productively lure the novice reader from trite fiction to revelatory text, from the superficial and stereotypical to the technical, the precise and the challenging. There is a pleasing sense of the absence of any overt political agenda in the material included: one can, for instance, as easily find a frank statement like ‘We disapprove of Gandhi’ (in the ‘As We Find It’ column of the journal Onward for August 1933) as anything in lavish praise of the mahatma. Nor is there any apparent attempt to erase colonial prejudice and presumption from the record. There are complete (or fairly complete) runs of some of the 200 or so journals included, such as the Modern Review, present here in almost its entity from 1907 to 1953, or, for those of a more technical disposition, the Indian Journal of Medical Research. This online availability of key journals might spare the reader many hours in a library, if certain issues could be found at all, and makes it possible to assess the character and contents of a major journal over its entire run as well as to select items of particular use for closer scrutiny. But with other items the patchiness of the coverage is frustrating. For instance, many issues of that important publication Indian Forester are not available here and only volume 5 (the volume of evidence from the North-Western Provinces and Punjab) of the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission is included. Presumably this is all the editors and their assistants could locate in India. For many who consult the South Asia Archive this may not matter: a discursive sample might well stand as a taster for the whole, but for those with a more comprehensive research agenda this patchiness will surely be a matter for regret. The complete set of the Hemp Commission’s reports, like the missing issues of the Indian Forester, could surely have been made up from elsewhere. It is a pity, too, that titles and subject headings have sometimes been inaccurately transposed in the online listing of searched material – ‘cierical’ for ‘clerical’, for instance, ‘appendizes’ for ‘appendices’.

As to the wider impact and significance of such an online archive, the possibilities are legion. It makes it possible for university and college libraries to acquire a very substantial research holding for South Asia (or for comparative purposes) where hitherto little or nothing was available to students. It should also reduce wear and tear on existing archival collections and the growing pressure on opening hours and copying. The South Asia Archive makes it possible to present to students a wide and attractive range of material for consideration – on South Asian religions, perhaps, or the rise of the Indian cinema – and to encourage them to explore, through word and subject searches, a chosen topic. But word-searching necessarily calls for a degree of selectivity and discrimination. Searching ‘Hinduism’ yields, unsurprisingly but perhaps not very helpfully, 44,090 results and ‘caste’ another 37,918: even ‘pilgrimage’ produces 6812 entries and ‘Sikhism’ 2370. On the other hand, more selective enquiries garner many fewer and more manageable results: ‘cement’ is worth 7611 results, ‘malaria’ 5319, but ‘beriberi’ only 110. Perhaps, it says something about gender that the five million pages of the South Asia Archive contain only one substantial entry on ‘women typists’, and that from the mouth of Jawaharlal Nehru speaking in response to a question in the Legislative Assembly in March 1947. What the South Asia Archive might encourage students and scholars to do is to think more laterally about the metaphorical as well as literal uses of a particular term, and to see, with remarkably little effort, the various contexts and nuances of meaning in which references to a specific idea, institution or individual occur. Try entering ‘slavery’ or ‘poison’ and the semantic richness as well as the social diversity of South Asia begins to reveal itself.

For those of us who have put in long hours in physically real (and demanding) libraries and archives, it is chastening – but rewarding nonetheless – to find at the touch of a button choice references one has previously failed to detect. If I had known that the Report of the Bengal Administration Enquiry Committee, 1944-45 had used, as a chapter heading, such an apt phrase as ‘speeding the machine’, I would undoubtedly have borrowed it for my own work on ‘everyday technology’, along with the observation: ‘The utility of typewriters is enormous, and their absence is calculated to hold up business very seriously’. I would never have thought of hunting down the Educational Review for April 1928 (even if I had known of its existence or where to find it) for the judicious comment by an instructor at the Nawanagar High School in Jamnagar that ‘Typewriting is important to all people alike from an ordinary quill-driver to the highest officer’ and that ‘This art has enabled many a youth to procure enviable positions’. My loss will be someone else’s opportunity.

The South Asia Archive makes it possible to exploit the greatly underutilized periodical literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in English and (to some degree) in the vernaculars, and to read South Asian source materials, especially for the high and late colonial period, for their still largely unexplored wealth of statistical data, and for the extraordinary depth and density of the scientific observation they reveal about soils, forests, geology, crop pests, cattle diseases and all the rest. For any historians of science, technology and medicine this is an undoubted treasure trove, but much the same could be said of the possibilities it offers for in-depth research on education and the law or on agriculture and urban environments. Some enterprising Masters’ dissertations and some ground-breaking PhDs should come out of this, and, if that helps bring a new vigour and a new breath of intellectual enquiry to the study of South Asia around the globe, that can be no bad thing. Indeed, one might hope that the online archive does not close at this point. Not only is there much more material for the period from the early eighteenth century to the early 1950s that could be added (including, where possible, more complete runs of journals and reports); there is also an equally great need for materials from the early 1950s onwards, from departmental reports and enquiry committees to popular journals and visual matter, which are often difficult to locate or access adequately in South Asia and elsewhere. Indeed, it would be a pity if the effect of the publication of this online archive were to excessively favour the historical, by encouraging the study of South Asia only up to the early years of independence, when so much more needs to be known about education, law, science, and all the other topics covered by this project, in more contemporary times.

This is a remarkable collection of material by any standard, and if it will be of particular interest to source-hungry historians, it is sufficiently broad, eclectic and imaginatively conceived to be of immense value to virtually all the disciplinary fields that make up the study of South Asia. It can hardly aim to be comprehensive – no archive, physical or digital, could possibly hope to be that. But it is profoundly suggestive – of the combined and cumulative power of the assembled texts and the diverse voices they contain, of the transformation of knowledge, aspiration and identity over a period of more than 200 years, of where other possible or more extended archival trails might yet lead. The South Asia Archive is a wonderful source for teaching and a superb tool for research; it is also a fascinating challenge to the academic understanding of an entire region of the modern world.



  • This invaluable archival data base – mostly re British India and India  – is available now in partial form to the Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide for a trial run.
  • At some point soon it will be possible for institutions to purchase “right of access.” Details are not known yet and Adelaide University will make this information available as soon as they know.

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