Nature India | Indigenus

SciArt scribbles: Crowdsourcing oral history of India’s science

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles.

Are memories of the generation that transformed India’s science in the 20th century fast fading away? Do India’s contributions get lost in the predominantly western storytelling of science? Jahnavi Phalkey, historian of science and the founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, says a new public repository is all set to correct this by documenting the oral history of India’s science.

Jahnavi Phalkey

Science Gallery Bengaluru

The concept of a well-documented ‘intergenerational conversation’ – where one generation passes on their expertise, anecdotes and experiences to the next – is grossly missing in India’s science. While transformative ideas revolutionised the country’s science and engineering in the 20th century, not many in the present generation of scientists might recollect the people behind those sparks.

To preserve these nuggets from history, my team and I at the Science Gallery Bengaluru are putting together a public archive of India’s science. Called Re:Collect, this crowd-sourced online repository will house recordings of conversations with free India’s first generation of scientists, engineers, and laboratory technicians about their life and times, giving us a peek into an era gone by. In short, we will document memories of science in action.

The repository is India’s first attempt to draw on the public’s curiosity, especially of the young, to unearth, document, and appreciate India’s rich science and technology history. Our inspiration came from two highly successful volunteer driven public digital archives – P Sainath’s People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and Guneeta Singh Bhalla’s 1947 Partition Archive.

What Sainath  says about the need for a people’s archive is equally true for the history of science in India, “Without any systematic record, visual or oral, to educate us – let alone motivate us – to save this incredible diversity, we are losing worlds and voices … of which future generations will know little or nothing.”

We will plug into a network of institutional archives willing to accept documents and objects we discover. Our first institutional chapter will be hosted at the Archives and Publication Cell, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), shortly to be followed by another chapter at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM).

Positioning India in the global science narrative

The story of science is mostly told as a story of Europe and North America. Stories and contributions from India and other parts of the world are lost in this narrative. We thought about how we might be able to change that skew.

While it was heartening to see new institutional archives opening their wares up, we found very few oral histories and no significant collection of personal papers of scientists and engineers. Such material is essential to write the history of scientific practice, credible biographies and thought-provoking prosopographies such as Gary Wersky’s The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of the 1930s (1978), Marwa Elshakry’s Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1850-1930 (2013) and Michael Boulter’s more recent Bloomsbury Scientists: Science and Art in the Wake of Darwin (2017).

Not too long ago, at the Science Museum London, I worked on what was dubbed as a blockbuster exhibition on India for which I was looking for interesting objects and stories behind them. Given my research in history of science, I knew it would be difficult, though I did not then appreciate just how much! King’s College London, where I was employed at the time, came to the rescue with seed funding for research on the exhibition and this is how Re:Collect was born. 

The process of archiving

Through the initial seed fund from King’s, I created a list of over 1,000 senior scientists and engineers born before India’s Independence in 1947, organised by their current city of domicile. Based on our learning from comparable projects, science communicator Shaun O’Boyle, designer Madhushree Kamak and I developed handbooks to generate material for the project. We have an established protocol for audio and audio-visual recording of interviews in laboratories, for creating their audio-summaries and transcripts, and for documenting objects and instruments of historical interest.

Re:Collect India will be driven by the young and not-so-young volunteers  ̶  they could be students, scientists, historians, artists or anyone interested in the history of science and technology in India. These volunteers will interview the first generation of free India’s scientists, engineers, and technicians preferably in their laboratories or field-site. They may even video record the interview as long as it adheres to the standards specified by the protocol. We want to encourage the need to listen to and capture the stories that these interviewees want to tell.

Field experiments are tricky and often throw up hilarious moments. Re:Collect will capture the joy of doing experimental research. In this photo, meteorologist Anna Mani works with a colleague on a radiosonde, a balloon-borne weather-measuring equipment.

World Meteorological Organization

The conversations will essentially capture the enthusiasm, challenges, setback, struggles of teaching, conducting research, establishing disciplines, institutions, and building equipment in India after Independence. We will encourage the documentation of objects in teaching and research. The resulting conversations about scientific practice will become an oral history archive, and also generate an object inventory.

India’s voices in science

As India comes under the spotlight in what promises to be the Asian century, general recognition of India’s struggles and accomplishments in science remains woefully inadequate both at home and abroad. This global lack of awareness is untenable especially when India is being seen as an engineering powerhouse with huge potential in scientific research.

Our archive, therefore, will have three strands – a digital public archive of people in science, an inventory of historical objects in teaching and research, and an open access exhibition website with stories of science in action. In due course, we would like to add full text official and credible reports related to science and engineering in India. As a bonus, we hope the process will help generate donations of personal papers and objects to institutional archives.

The Re:Collect experience and our online orientation workshops will help volunteers develop useful new skills. Our citizen archivists may want to become storytellers and vice versa. We would, of course, respect the interviewees’ intellectual ownership of their story, and always acknowledge the volunteer’s contributions.

Re.Collect will capture the collective energy and camaraderie that builds and pushes the pursuit of science. Rajeshvari Chatterjee (centre), the first woman engineer from Indian Institute of Science, works with colleagues at the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering.) 

APC, IISc

Institutions of science and their archives, especially in India, are seldom accessible to the layperson. Moreover, written documents fail to capture the excitement, the tragedy and the occasional triumph of everyday science. Video and spoken-word recordings of conversations, accompanying historical and contemporary photographs, and supporting documents are, therefore, more appropriate as public resources.

Besides the collaborations with IISc and IITM, we are exploring partnerships with universities in India and abroad to host the website and the digital repository. We will also be actively seeking collaborations with people who can use materials from the repository for research, writing, filmmaking, and pedagogy.

As people across generations meet and talk to each other, the young will meet the experienced. The stories shared will shed light on institution building and leadership in science, on the trials and travails of doing experimental research in India  ̶  all immensely useful learning for an early career scientist or an engineer. Moreover, the material itself will lay the foundations for future history writing; and more generally, the project will help create a historical sensibility around science in India.

[Jahnavi Phalkey is the author of Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth Century India, and director-producer of the film Cyclotron.]

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