Archives are a SCAM!

Brahma Prakash

Figure 1: JNM artists are performing in an undisclosed location (Source: Banned Thought)

I refuse/ I refuse to become a name like other names in a register/ When I am given handouts in the name of the rights, I refuse/ I refuse to get my identity decided by an identity card.

    Amir Aziz’s poem “Main Inkaar karta Hun” (I Refuse), 2020.1

Aziz’s poem “I Refuse” resists the notion of citizenship based on documents, papers and registers. The poem became popular during the Anti-CAA-NRC protest in India along with the rallying slogan, Ham Kagaz nahi dikhayenge (We will not show our papers).2 The poem and slogans can be viewed as an anti-archival performance as it resists the history, claims and identity based on archival sources. The poem above is an excerpt from a longer piece which provides land, memory and collective struggle as proof of citizenship as opposed to documents. It insists on performing and reclaiming citizenship through bodies and movements. By placing collective memory and communities at the center, the poem brings together the tensed relations between living and archiving, embodiment and documents, people and the law. This also places the complexities around the archives and its relationship with the minority and marginalized communities in a specific socio-cultural context.

I do not want to hide my strong biases against the archive. The archive has deep Brahminical and colonial legacies in India.3 I have often decided to abandon the archive in my scholarly engagement on the mnemonic practices and the folk performances of the subaltern communities.4 But many times, I also felt the need to use the archive to ascertain some information. Even if I didn’t need to draw on archival sources, I felt a scholarly compulsion to engage with the archives to legitimize my scholarship on mnemonic cultural practices of the subaltern communities, to support my opinions in the regime of referentiality as an archive authorizes the power of authenticity. Postcolonial residual strongly survives in academic training, teaching and learning processes and harks back to notions of archives to prove its credentials. While not having archival sources can lead to academic anxiety, the open sources of the oral tradition come as a threat. Oral sources, because of their surplus interpretations, bring inherent volatility in structured disciplines of the academic world. They are often seen as myths, legends, fairy tales without having full validity. So, ironically folk narratives from the field are viewed with suspicion while folklore documented in archives perceived with a sense of authenticity in the same academic practices. So, while living oral traditions of folk communities are ignored, when archived by scholars and institutions, the same traditions obtain validity. In other words, unless oral histories do not become part of archives, they are not considered authentic. This shows how even in its rejection, archive remains a constituting force.

The archive—the site I remain suspicious of for several reasons, most importantly for the cultural practices of the subaltern communities. I maintain an uncanny relationship with regard to the role of existing archives in shaping and creating a knowledge base for “folk” and mnemonic theatre and cultural performances of the subaltern communities in India and South Asia. I have strong apprehensions regarding the limits of the archive: how much can an archive offer us to understand the politics and aesthetics of such embodied performances? And how much can it be [made] inclusive? How much can it be expanded to accommodate Others? Others of the archive here represent the panorama of culture and communities who remain outside of this archival formation, such as Dalits and Bahujans, Adivasis, nomads and other marginalized communities. Or will Others only appear as “traces” in the valorized postmodern postcolonial discourses? I have argued that “these traces are not only inadequate but are also not embodied voices of these communities.”[refSee Prakash, Brahma. Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2019, p.91.[/ref] These traces have often been created to validate historians’ own “textual and archival practices.” I would like to revisit Diana Taylor’s (2003) fundamental question—whose memories “disappear” if only archival knowledge is valorized and granted permanence?5 

I posit an anti-archival project in a direct confrontation with      archival projects. It takes similar strategies to undermine the presence of the Others. The agenda is confrontational: the archives that ignore you (subaltern communities here), ignore them. Knowledge that humiliates you—do not engage with it. It is a deliberate attempt of not engaging with the dominant archives and sources that have emerged as a new idea of an anti-archival project. The strategy is very much part of the contemporary Dalits and Bahujans discourses in India. There has been a significant attempt to not to engage with the upper caste Hindu textual sources and cultural practices (such as epics and performances centered on the epics of Mahabharta and Ramayana) in new Dalits-Bahujans discourses. Ambedkarite cultural movements in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and many other parts of India have come with this understanding that they will not engage (rather disengage) with Hinduism and their knowledge system. It is not very different from rejecting the Hindu temple. Dalits and Ambedkarite would rather say that we are not interested in your temple that dehumanizes us. Engaging with those archives will stand for validating those archives.

Featherstone has argued that “to understand the legitimacy of culture we need to investigate its relation to the archive.”6 The archive is the site where bodies are marked, culture is inscribed, genres are classified and knowledge is ordered. Not much has changed in the meaning, purpose and position of the archive in the postcolonial society when it comes to its encounter with the culture and performances of Dalits-Bahujan communities in India. The entrenched structure of bureaucracy has brought it closer to the real aekheoin—a residence of the superior magistrate or the house of the archon who commands. Derrida observes that the archons were not only acting as the guardians of the documents but also held the hermeneutic right to interpret the archives and speak the law.7 Lakshmi asks us to democratize the archive by including oral histories as part of India’s national archives. She goes on to suggest the names of the archives that have such collections of oral histories. While I agree with some of her pertinent points, I find the propositions problematic as she tries to incorporate Others without challenging the site and model of the archives themselves.

Even if I refuse to engage with the archive, I am aware of its role in the formation of cultural institutions, cultural classes and the production of cultural and aesthetic values. It commands and dictates even from a distance. Therefore, to engage or not to engage with the archive becomes a paradox in the representation discourses of the subaltern communities. So like a separate temple or separate religion Dalits and Bahujans should work for separate notions of the archives. I may or may not like archives – this remains an important dilemma for the subaltern communities. The dilemma also becomes more pertinent when academic scholarship constantly emphasizes the role of the archive in the legitimization of past and history. It has been accepted that archival sources are more authentic than oral history. So while writing a chapter on bidesia performance (theatre of migrant labourer), the publisher often asked to tell me when the play Bidesiya was actually written, when it was actually performed. The fact is that the play was performed before it was written. It was written several times and no script can be considered original or less original. On many occasions when such plays were first performed, they were performed with different names. Whenever I was asked such questions, I felt frustrated. How are we going to archive these cultural sources which cannot be located in time and space? How are we going to mark out materials which are constantly formed? They are often not fully shaped and often cross into other genres. And in the research context of Western scholarship, one often feels compelled to engage with the archives to seek legitimacy. Every time I apply for a fellowship in UK institutions, I have to write a justification of how their archival collections on folk performances are going to inform my research. I often tried to convince myself that there should be a balance between the archive and ethnography/ fieldwork observations as they may complete each other. But whenever I engaged with existing archives, I left frustrated and disgruntled. I felt that in what I was trying to find the agency and potency of performance is missing. My voice is missing. I am becoming passive in my own writing. In a paradox, the bodies and articulations of the subaltern communities are erased in the very claim of the representation. Their dynamic movements disappear in the very description of the communities. I tried to engage with the British Library archives during my research work in the UK, especially with the works of George Grierson and other scholars who did enormous documentations of life, customs and material culture.8 What I felt was that the archive does not give anything new that is not available in the field—in the embodied memories and performance of the communities. One feels that the information and documents that are provided are too limited and too classified. The archive asks to read the materials in specific ways, which kills the scope of interpretations. It kills the fluidity that has been part of the imaginative practices. For example, George Grierson provides a list of benevolent and malevolent deities largely taking the views and social opinions of upper castes. In this categorization, most of the so-called lower caste deities fall under the malevolent deities and get negative descriptions.

The postcolonial Brahminical archive is so much overshadowed by the unquestioned legacies of caste-privileged traditions and aesthetics that in its very organization, the archive dictates and rejects Others. As soon as it claims its reason to appear, it assumes or announces the disappearance and foreclosure of other embodied performances. In this regard, Taylor has already indicated that instead of trying to expand or democratize the notion of the archive, one should think about embodied performances such as dance, theatre and rituals that cannot be contained in the archive.9 We need to shift the perspective of the archive from the repository to the repertoire as the archive is largely shaped and viewed as a storehouse that is marked by durability and fixity. Though the repertoire is also credited to store skills and knowledge, its relationship with change makes it an active but impermanent site. In fact, it can be argued that the meaningful interactions that we try to search in archives can be better found in embodied performances and cultural practices of the repertoire.

At this point we can ask if there is possibility of dialogue between the existing sites of archives and the sites of embodied communities’ performances of the subaltern communities, considering that archival impulses can be potential sites of identity and representation discourses. In this context André Lepecki discusses the will to archive without imposing the power of the archives. In “The Body as Archive”, he argues that bodies have to come to the archives and archives have to come to the body for this engagement.10 While this appears to be an interesting proposition which may work in the future, in caste based society, this could be only possible after certain kinds of radical undoings of the existing notions of archive. There is another site where Lepecki’s proposition appears to gaining validity. New “archival” or “historical” sites (for example, Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra) do not create hierarchies between histories and epics. The site is not about the authenticity of history but about the potentials of radical politics. But how do we see Lepecki’s proposition in relation to existing archives?

My most recent encounter with the archive was with the personal collections of a dance scholar who played a key role in the shaping of Indian state’s cultural policies on dance and theatre. His collections that could be easily seen as an exclusive archive on Indian classical dance traditions. The collections still need to be carefully explored and analyzed. Nevertheless, a brief engagement with this archive was eye-opening for me. 

The archive holds a vast selection of photographs, letters, personal exchanges, magazines and mementoes; however, the vast selections are narrow in their aims in the sense that they show the narrowness of the classical dance world. In the name of representations, it was a series of exclusions arranged in an aestheticized manner. I felt frustrated again. I cleaned and dusted the pieces which I wanted to tear down and place into the garbage. 

The collection represents a family lineage of the Indian upper-caste elites. What did I find in the dance scholar’s collections? Authorities of gurus, celebration of international tours, awards, institutions and growing art networks of the middle class. It also includes dance magazines and journals circulated among the same class and often edited by extended family members. The scholar appears everywhere posing in the centre, as an expert representing the institution and carrying the power of the archive. The small archive shows how dance and choreography are constructed and inscribed by Indian elite scholars and the state cultural institutions. The selection is smooth, beautiful without cracks, sheds and holes. It shows the attempt of polishing unfinished regional folk performances. The presence of Others remains outside, deliberately deleted or passive within the frame. Such archiving can also lead to disciplinary compartmentalization of the arts with dance, music, theatre, song and folklore.

The selections clearly show how institutionalized Indian dance and theatre remain so narrow, exclusive and casteist in nature. What we see in the archive is an uncritical celebration of Brahminism and its cultural manifestations. It shows how much erasure has gone in this attempt of “preservation.” Taylor’s assertion that ““preservation” served as a call to erasure” becomes so true.11 Others are either absent, outside or passive within the presence.

There is no doubt that an act of documentation is always selective.  How does one select? What does one select? It is important because selection of genre is selection of agency of caste, class and gender in a fragmented caste-based society in India. In his many interviews, the scholar often used the term discovery, “the discovery of India” and “discovery of Sattriyas”. He was engaged in a life mission to discover the dance forms of different regions. Discovery is not an innocent term that. It is for this “discovery” – reinforcement of the hierarchies – that he received acclaimed recognition from the Indian elites and middle classes. He is not an exception in this regard. It can be rather argued that the “discovery” has been the basis of the colonial and postcolonial archive. It carries the same sense in which Kalidas’s play Abhigyan Shakuntalam, as well as Bharatanatyam and other classical dances were discovered. What is usually undermined in postcolonial scholarship is the very encounter with the others. If we take a decolonial perspective in this regard, then beyond intra-cultural and intercultural performance there is no significant difference between what interculturalists do to national performance and what nationalists do to regional and subaltern performances. For a struggle for cultural freedom, we need to decentre the centre in all possible ways, following Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who argued for “moving the centre in two senses – between nations and within nations”.12 Indian Adivasis use the term “dikus” for all outside exploiters without making a difference between the Indian or British. In the field of anti-caste cultural practices in India and south Asia, inter-colonization of art and cultural practices can no longer be eluded.

From archival exploration, it is clear that an embodied performance cannot be contained in the archive, it has to be principally “anti-archival” in its impulses. It has to go against its filing, defiling and archival aspirations to get formed and framed. Otherwise, there is a danger that archival aspiration will take over the vitality of community-based performance. This has happened in the case of Sattriya dance practice in the Indian state of Assam, where the focus has been shifted from devotion to documentation and immersion to exhibition. The shift is a result of long archiving practices induced in the light of the formation of cultural institutions and “co-option of the discourses within the middle class concerns.”13 The discourses of morality, domesticity, nationalism, secularism and feminism within the dance, theatre and performance studies in Indian context has been viewed from this narrow ambit of the middle class. I would like to term this artistic and cultural formation  as  the middle classicization of Indian art and culture. Dance collectors and experts claimed to have spent “many years” documenting the forms and mobilizing them for classical status. The act of classicization and the act of transfer in the archive are not two distinct processes. In the field of art, they are the same. While Sattras dance used to be an embodied place, the induced changes show how the archival aspirations entered into space and performance. Cultural institutions and archiving projects have induced a new sensibility in which documentation has become a new fetish. This aspiration to archive and document cannot be termed as what Lepecki would term a “will to archive” which is an attempt to de-centre the archive with the movement of bodies.14 What we are witnessing instead here is what I would like to term “the willing bodies of the archives”. The willing bodies of the archives not only emulate the hegemonic ideology of the archive but they start functioning as the apparatus and networks of the archive. In such cases, the archive takes over bodies and exhibits them like other objects of the museum or with written texts codified on the bodies or on the frame to be marked as inscriptions of its authority. An increasing desire to document and archive has reached another level in some specific contexts, for example in the case of Sattriya of Assam or contemporary dance.

Assam is the same state where the NRC has become controversial because in many cases citizens are not able to produce their documents/ proof of existence. On the other side, there is an attempt to document every move, pause, tilt and pose of Sattriya dance. One might wonder what connection there might be between the documentation of Sattriya and the documentation of citizenship. The relationship may seem uncanny but it is not that far-fetched. It is the same archival impulse and sense of insecurity that is driving both the Indian state and the Sattriya dancer for credentials. Removing encroachers (Muslims) from sattra (monastery) land has been one of the electoral promises of the rightwing BJP government in Assam. As India’s “classical dance”, Sattriya has acquired strong credentials on the basis of Indian ideology. It has acquired the status of cultural heritage but the communities it represents have to prove their credentials as part of the NRC exercise.

Wait! We will Create Our Evidences

Elsewhere,15 I have argued that reading from the traces, history and historiography of folk performances becomes deeply problematic, as their discourses and counter-discourses are entirely dependent on colonialist, nationalist and elitist documentations. The documents are passive, silent and secondary when it comes to delineating the forceful voices of subaltern communities. The archive rather presents a history of rejections and humiliation. While doing my fieldwork in Bihar, when I asked a Dalit activist whether he can provide texts or evidences of his claims, he told me to come and meet him next month. He said, “I will get my claims written by that time.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “You wanted text as evidence.” “Yes,” I replied.  “I will create text based on my assertion. I will get it printed and you can use it for your evidence.” My ideas of text-based evidence fell apart. It also shows how middle-class constant evocation of texts and archives has necessitated in many parts of India for communities to print their oral histories and genealogy. Taking from the same high ground of texts, they want to show textual evidence. If social elites can provide evidences of their artistic traditions, Dalits-Bahujans can also provide  evidences for their claims. Most of their texts and “evidences”  are not part of any archives and museums but in popular culture that has already created a rift. It has led to claims and contestation. They argue that if you have documents, we also have documents. If you have text, we also have text. You bring your proof; I will bring mine. It challenges the notion of textual knowledge and archives particularly in the context when the archive is translated as abhilekhagaar (house of the written documents) in many Indian languages. The contested claims obliterate the power and authenticity of the archives.

Towards the end of this intervention, I would like to bring two visuals from two different performative contexts that can be said to be anti-archival in their spirits. The first image comes from my fieldwork on bhuiyan puja (a land and ancestral worship ceremony) in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

Gahabar (Worshipping Place), a social and material projection of ancestor’s heritage.

What we are seeing in the images are objects and indexes of land worship. These objects are supposed to bring the histories and memories of the ancestors to an extent that they can embody their spirits. They can be termed as cultural heritage of the families and communities displayed during the community worship. To create the site of worship, family members mobilize ancestral properties that may include swords, okhli (mortar), grinder, plow, boats and other objects. These objects acquire special significations during the performances with active participants of bodies and communities. Lepecki’s formulation that  the bodies have to come to the archives and the archives have to come to the body becomes too real. After the worship is over, the objects go back to their places. The site has to be destroyed after the worship.

JNM Kumari (original name withheld) dancing and singing in an undisclosed location. According to the Maoist sources, she was later killed by the state police in a fake encounter (Source: Banned Thought)

The second images come from an anonymous source in which we see photographs of banned cultural activists of Jana Natya Mandali (JNM) associated with the People’s War (Marxist-Leninist)–also known as Maoist or Naxalite Party performing in undisclosed locations, most probably in the southern Indian state of Telangana. Banned organizations from time to time destroy their archives and collections (including photographs, literature, sim cards) for the reasons of security as well as  part of their political strategy. 

While dismantling archives in both examples have their own cultural and political significance, they also suggest that the questions of who can have the privileges of archives are class and caste based formations in India. For this reason also, archives as a site of knowledge and embodiment is a scam.  Archives are a scam!

Dr. Brahma Prakash is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi. He is the author of Cultural Labour: Conceptualizing the ‘Folk Performance’ in India (New Delhi: OUP, 2019) and Gaddar: Songs and Memoirs of a Maoist Balladeer. (Forthcoming, Westland Publication 2021). He specializes in regional performance traditions and non-western Aesthetic theories (focus on Chinese and Japanese aesthetics). Combining art, academic and activism, his works focus on the regional theatre and performance traditions in relation to the questions of marginality, aesthetics and cultural justice. He has been the recipient of the Dwight Conquergood Award of the Performance Studies International.

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  1. Aziz, Amir, “Main Inkaar Karta Hun”. Youtube Video. Jan 2, 2020. Accessed on May 25, 2021.
  2. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was enacted by the Government of India on 12 Dec 2019. Related to the CAA, the proposal was the National Register of Citizens (NRC) of India which aimed to document all the “legal” citizens of India so that the illegal citizens are identified and prosecuted. Protests erupted under the umbrella of the Anti-CAA-NRC protest in which several people were killed and many of them still remained in prison.
  3. Brahmanism or the Brahminical system adheres to caste and Varna ideology in India and inherently believes caste, gender and cultural hierarchy. Anti-caste thinkers like B.R. Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar consider Brahminism as the most vicious hegemonic ideology perpetuated in the Hindu society.
  4. I use subaltern communities instead of subaltern classes or subaltern groups to place communities as a site of social and cultural production. Though my work broadly refers to the so-called lower caste groups of Dalits and Bahujans, my deployment of the term goes beyond them. It also refers to many other communities who are not part of this social structure such as nomadic communities.
  5. See Taylor, Diana. The archive and the repertoire: Performing cultural memory in the Americas. Duke University Press, 2003, p. 36.
  6. Featherstone, Mike. “Archive.” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 2-3 (2006): 591-596.
  7. We can take examples of Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA),the Anthropological Survey of India and the National Archives (ASI) as having played a key role in commanding textual values and aesthetic canons. These institutions have played a key role in shaping the notion of “classical”, “folk” and “tribal”.  National Archives sit on the notion of the archives. As the current regime has been trying to dislocate many of these institutions as part of the Central Vista project, there has been discussion on the significance of these institutions in nation building projects. In a provocative article, Rama Lakshmi has argued that such institutions have “looked down upon oral histories as a lesser and somewhat unreliable form of constructing the past.”16Lakshmi, Rama. “The Real Fight for the national archives should be about what it doesn’t contain, not the relocation.” The Print. June 6, 2021. Accessed on June 6, 2021.
  8. Grierson, George Abraham. Bihar Peasant Life: Being a Discursive Catalogue of the Surroundings of the People of that Province, with Many Illustrations from Photographs Taken by the Author. Bengal Secretariat Press, 1885.
  9. Taylor, 2003, pp. 36-37.
  10. See Lepecki, André. “The body as archive: Will to re-enact and the afterlives of dances.” Dance Research Journal 42, no. 2 (2010): 28-48.
  11. Taylor, 2003, p.41.
  12. Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey, 1993: xvii.
  13. Prakash, Cultural Labour, 132
  14. Lepecki, “Body as Archive”, 45
  15. Prakash, Cultural Labour, 57-95

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