Mircea Raianu (University of Maryland)

The relative paucity of dedicated business archives in India has often been a subject of lament among historians. For many decades, the private papers held by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi served as the main point of departure. However, recent years have witnessed a growing interest in collecting, preserving, and making accessible business records on a wider scale. Tata led the way with the establishment of the Tata Central Archives (TCA) in Pune in 2001, which joined the existing Tata Steel Archives (TSA) in the flagship company town of Jamshedpur. Other firms such as Godrej and Bajaj are now following suit, opening up exciting new possibilities for business and economic history, as well as for scholarship on many other aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century South Asia (law, labor, urban planning, science and technology, and more). Indeed, it was in large part the promise of comprehensively mining these archives that first drew me to researching the history of Tata for my PhD.

Located in Pune’s upscale Koregaon Park neighborhood on the grounds of the Tata Management Training Centre, TCA serves multiple functions as a repository of records for internal use, a public museum, and a resource center for inducting new managers in the history, culture, and ethos of the firm. The collections are vast, anchored by tens of thousands of typed documents assembled by the Department of Economics and Statistics (DES) in the early 1950s. These have subsequently been digitized and organized chronologically and by company. The Archives also hold the complete correspondence of former Chairman J.R.D. Tata, and the private papers of notable Tata associates such as M.R. Masani, A.D. Shroff, and Nani Palkhivala. Access is granted to researchers with minimal bureaucratic hassle, but visits must be arranged in advance (ideally before arriving in Pune). There is a fairly strong ‘gatekeeper’ effect at work, which extends to the way researchers interact with the material. Whenever possible, requests are delivered directly to a computer in PDF format. Photocopies of paper files and digital reproductions are available for a nominal fee. Researchers tend to visit the Archives for short periods of time in search of specific information about a particular topic or person, but extended stays would reveal a trove of unsuspected riches.

More than a thousand miles away, the Tata Steel Archives plays a similar role as an integral part of the steel company’s public face in the proprietary township of Jamshedpur. The Archives are housed in the Russi Mody Centre for Excellence, amidst imposing pyramids and columns designed by architect Hafeez Contractor (see photo). The TSA collection is surprisingly extensive and more complete than its counterpart in Pune when it comes to certain subjects, including labor relations, urban planning, technology, and the social history of the Chotanagpur region. Of special interest are the correspondence of B.J. Padshah, an ingenious polymath who assisted founder Jamsetji Tata in his major economic and philanthropic ventures, and a series of around 500 print advertisements, dating back to the 1940s, that would appeal to art and visual historians. Most files have not been digitized, so the archival experience is much more ‘traditional’ in that it involves navigating multiple overlapping categories and systems of organization (in the absence of a catalog) and cross-checking rigorously. Photography was allowed when I visited in 2014. As in Pune, the staff is exceptionally helpful.

Taken together, the Tata archives offer unique opportunities to broaden the source base of many different kinds of histories we tell, and generate fruitful new areas of inquiry. They also prompt reflection on how business archives, as institutions and sites of knowledge production, are taking shape in a rapidly changing economic and political landscape.

January 2018