Niharika Yadav (Princeton University)

Maharashtra State Archives (Mumbai)

Situated in the heart of south Mumbai’s business district, the Maharashtra State Archives (MSA) are housed in one half of the city’s iconic Elphinstone College. The MSA’s vast collection of records, dating from 1630 to 1955, make the archive indispensable for any work on the history of western India, and an invaluable resource for historians of economic life in South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean world.

Research room, MSAI first entered MSA hoping to write a history of women’s work as typists, telephone operators and secretaries in Bombay city’s burgeoning clerical economies in the early decades of the 20th century. Starting, predictably enough, with labor gazettes, I quickly realized that the story I would end up writing would be quite different from the one I had expected to find. The visibility accorded to women’s roles in urban offices in new sites of representation such as cinema was in striking contrast to the number of women actually engaged in such professions. With the crucial exception of the telephone, young men from humble middle-class backgrounds-- who moved to the city in growing numbers from the 1920s--entered these clerical professions. The gendered cinematic image of the modern working girl--exemplified in Ruby Meyer’s Typist Girl (1926) --circulated among this group of men, for whom cinema fast became a popular cultural practice.

Dualities such as these, latent in the historical and representational genealogies of clerical labor, became the point of departure for my research. An eclectic set of materials at the MSA helped me re-conceptualize my work as a history of Bombay’s transformation into a ‘clerical city’, examined through the emergence of new, gendered urban subjectivities. In the process, I also revised my preconceived notions about ‘economic life’ and the kinds of materials through which one could narrate its transformations.  

Using colonial reports on education, labor gazettes, Times of India directories, annual prospectuses of the Sydenham College and anything I could find regarding the staffing of clerical bureaucracies and the procurement of typewriters and telephones in government offices, I pieced together a narrative of the changing nature of commercial education and clerical work in the city. I also pursued this story outside MSA in the archives of privately owned commercial schools (such as Davar’s College of Commerce, one of the city’s pioneering commercial colleges, located a few blocks from MSA) and archives of businesses like TATA (Pune) and Godrej (Mumbai). Godrej archives, located in the company’s township in Vikhroli, contain a wealth of information on Godrej typewriters and a brilliant collection of documents on the company’s employee “Staff Club”.

With inspiration from Raj Chandavarkar’s seminal writing on labor in the city, and my own daily rush-hour grind on the local train, I ventured outside of colleges and workplaces in the Fort, to chawls and suburban neighborhoods where those employed in new clerical hierarchies lived. Pioneering studies on Bombay’s middle-classes--namely Prashant Kidambi (2007) and Nikhil Rao (2013) --in addition to materials in the archive on housing, cinema censorship and colonial catalogues of books published in Bombay presidency, provided sources to study a middle-class discourse on urban life engendered by the strains of employment and changes in social life. Representations of the city as a site of despair and desire in middle-class imagination--in discussions on leisure, consumption and living arrangements---created the context for debates about the steadily growing presence of women in workspaces and public life. The burgeoning world of popular print publication was vividly attentive to these singularities of urban life. While catalogues of books and journals published in Bombay in the MSA are valuable as indices, providing interesting vignettes, some of these texts themselves can also be located in regional language repositories such as the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sanghralay (Dadar).

Retuning to the MSA:  digital copies of the catalogue to the archives (“The Hand Book of Bombay Archives”) are easily accessible online and provide a good introduction to the records.  However, more detailed lists of collections pertaining to individual departments are only available in hard copies at the archive. The earliest records consist of correspondence of the East India Company held in the form of over 150 volumes of large, rather unwieldy diaries (called the “Surat Diaries”). While at MSA I was also moonlighting as an assistant for a scholar researching civil and military relations in East India company settlements in the 18th century. I consulted these diaries for details on issues including (but not limited to) the following: fortification in the island of Bombay, relations with neighboring Maratha powers, local claims and disputes relating to land and livelihoods and issues of oceanic ‘piracy’. Beyond western India, the Surat Diaries contain information on regions that span the Arabian coast, East Africa and parts of South East Asia. These will no doubt be of interest to historians researching the East India Company’s commercial and political activities in the wider Indian ocean world.

Newspaper archives, MSAMSA’s records from 1820s onwards are available in the form proceedings organized by colonial government departments, and after 1920, in the form of departmental files. Details about the salient features of each department and a brief narrative of inter-departmental reorganizations can be accessed in the archives handbook. While records of the Commercial, Financial and Revenue departments would appear to provide a staple diet for economic historians, records of the General, Public Works and the Political and Secret Departments are a treasure-trove for historians of work and labor. In addition to these, the archives also hold significant collections of: government publications (annual reports, gazettes, legislative assembly debates), maps (of colonial survey operations in Bombay island and surrounding districts), private records (of land and revenue arrangements pertaining to Maratha polities, written in Modi script or occasionally Persian) and newspapers. The MSA’s newspaper archives are housed in a room that researchers had playfully dubbed the T.B room after an instance or two of Tuberculosis among scholars who spent their summers holed up there. My own experience, thankfully, was uneventful by comparison. I consulted the English daily Bombay Chronicle (now digitized under the wonderful initiative called Granthsanjeevani, by the Asiatic Society Library in Mumbai) and the tabloid rivals Blitz and Current. This, however, is only a fraction of the collection which includes Marathi and Gujarati language newspapers alongside other English dailies.

Scholars are allowed to consult up to thirty files, requisitioned three times a day. That said, for those used to the routine of the National Archives of India (New Delhi), the more informal rhythm of MSA will come as a relief [ I do not recall a single requisition slip being turned back with the dreaded N.T. (not transferred)]. While the policy allowing scholars to photograph documents had been discontinued during my time, facilities for photocopying and digital scanning were available. This process can take up to two weeks or more, accounting for backlogs, holidays, technical delays and myriad other routine contingencies of bureaucracy in India.

On the whole, the constant bustle of young college goers, the informal, chaotic but efficient rhythm of work, so characteristic of Mumbai, and, last but not least, the frenetic energy you get from the pressure of having only a short workday to sift through a potential goldmine of archival material make the experience of doing research at MSA exhilarating in more ways than one.

February 2018