Down the Bylanes of History: Digitizing the Plaques of Presidency University, Kolkata

—Sohini Sengupta and Sourav Chattopadhyay

From the Managing editor’s desk : The act of digital archiving invites scholars and teachers in the humanities to think through different forms of infrastructure: from the materiality of the stone to the design of the World Wide Web. What does the act of archiving offer to rethink relationships among places, mediums and ideas? In this inaugural piece of DHARTI Medium blog, Sohini Sengupta and Sourav Chattopadhyay take us to a walk : you meet figures forgotten in history; you meander through fragmented stories ; and then when you have been able to find a way out, you realize that you have participated in world-making for the future, without turning history into an object of desire and fetish. Read on…

Collage of plaques located at Presidency University, Kolkata

In his celebrated essay “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Pierre Nora posits that a monument is itself a site of memory. A monument, it can be said, is an archive of a moment in time. In archiving something that exists as a traditional yet marginal form of archive, one faces a certain tension — a sort of unsettling in the very idea of the archive itself. The Presidency Plaques Project — a digital archive of the memorials at the Presidency University campus, College Street, Kolkata is an endeavor to strike a balance within this tension — between the traditional and the digital.

The project’s origins were utterly informal: from the addas outside the classroom and the regular walks through the college corridors grew an academic interest about the memorials, we easily overlook. The many statues and plaques spread across the campus of Presidency University face a dual silence — from the lack of proper archiving and the limitations of traditional documentation. Our project engages with the institution’s colonial past and aims at retrieving a history of these memorials, as well as the narratives associated with them. More importantly, through the digital medium, it attempts to deconstruct the hegemonic narratives of glory that surround the colonial institutions of Kolkata, by exploring counter-narratives, and scrutinizing histories both present and absent.

More importantly, through the digital medium, it attempts to deconstruct the hegemonic narratives of glory that surround the colonial institutions of Kolkata, by exploring counter-narratives, and scrutinizing histories both present and absent.

The Presidency Plaques Project is, it may be said, a direct product of the Digital Humanities education at Presidency University. Brought together by engagements on the subject both inside and outside of the classroom, our team in the preliminary period of data collection included students from both within and outside (attending the course in DH offered as a General Elective by the Department of English) the department. Major inspirations to this project were The Scottish Cemetery in Bengal and The Dutch Cemetery in Chinsurah, digital archival projects led and directed by Dr Souvik Mukherjee, who was also the course coordinator of this GE course, and a constant support to our project. The objectives of the PPP included a) photographing the statues and plaques at the Presidency University campus, b) transcribing the inscriptions on the memorials and inserting biographical, literary, historical and architectural metadata, c) linking the often fragmented information available on the individuals commemorated (from libraries, archives, Presidency College magazines and administrative records, free information repositories and genealogy websites), d) cataloguing the above data in a flexible and open access digital database, and e) creating an open access website facilitating a guided tour of the memorials at the college campus and tracing the global connections in the history of the institution. For the website, we have used ArcGIS StoryMaps as our platform (with a mirror site on Google Sites), combining texts, maps and images in an interactive guided tour.

Project members engaged in the task of data collection in front of the plaque of Henry Scott Smith

The curation of this archive involved two key intentions on our part — first, that it can serve as a history of the monuments of the institution in its own right, and second, that it can invite further research perspectives that may contribute to the scholarships on the history of the institution. Therefore, two goals central to our project were : a) to somewhat remedy the absence of a ‘history’ of the many old and new monuments spread across the campus, and b) to open an alternate approach towards understanding the history of Presidency College, and thereby, the network of memories associated with the colonial and postcolonial cityscape of Kolkata. Our initial research unearthed a global network that could emerge from this history. To highlight this, we used ArcGIS StoryMaps — an interface that permitted the illustration of spatial relationships within, alongside, and around narratives, and allowed the two to inform each other within the space of the digital. For instance, the entries have maps alongside them, which mark locations on the world map, that the person was associated with, largely in terms of their education and/or service. John Edwardes Lyall is marked in Oxford, while Henry Scott Smith hails from Belfast, Ireland. Hugh William McCann received his initial education in Scotland before moving to Cambridge, and then India. And with the contributors towards the foundation of the college, we are, of course, brought back to Bengal. So we see that though the monuments occupy one hall — in this case, the library, a very small space in physical terms; when it comes to history and narration, they stand for a wider, global network. This global network can be read as a significant aspect of the intellectual trajectory of colonial Kolkata.

Collage of the Global networks emerging from the plaque

This global network can be read as a significant aspect of the intellectual trajectory of colonial Kolkata.

Imagining, connecting and rediscovering space and place formed an important part of the enquiry of this project. The memorials that have been erected in the premises of Presidency University, dating from the late 19th century to as late as the 2013–15, allow an introspection on the growth of the institution as both architectural and pedagogical space. Our StoryMap is structured such that we find the palimpsestic presence of the larger, global space of the commemorated individuals’ lived experience, much like Ingold’s wayfaring lines (2009) in the physical, architectural space of the campus itself. As Ingold argues, “as soon as a person moves, he becomes a line”; these lines of movement from across the globe coalesce within the space of this university. The archive therefore offers the potential to unpack the narratives associated with the memorials on multiple registers, and to introspect on the memory crystalized in stone, and its weaving into history.

The curation of this archive also opened to us the questions of certain memories being preferred and consolidated over others. As Peter Robb argues, memorials “take possession of places and define their nature”, yet, at the same time, they are not markers of “unchanging legacy” (2013). Take for example the case of Manoranjan Chaudhury, a first-year student, a plaque in whose memory was erected at his passing by his classmates in 1924. Nearly a century later, we discover the plaque displaced from its original location; no clue remains as to where it was originally housed. Here we are led to inspect which history of itself this institution itself wishes to maintain. This history is history as heritage, of legacy and excellence, clinging on to the memory of the empire and of renowned babus. In the crowd of these big stories of glory, the small voices of history — those of the relations and memories of Manoranjan Chaudhury and his friends — are buried.

Chaudhury’s plaque was displaced likely because there was no ready history of such a person — and the institution’s sense of history has no space for such ‘insignificant’ memories. The physical memory of Chaudhury in the form of his memorial tablet may be already lost, but this student who lived and died a hundred years before us is not completely obliterated, thanks to this possibility of engaging with the digital medium. The process of digital archiving has also led us to notice the violence of exclusion that exists in the act of memorialization as well. As we noted in our introduction, “[o]ne finds no commemoration of the history of female presence in the campus — female students were formally allowed into the institution as late as 1944. […] The absence of any statues or plaques in the campus commemorating a woman speaks significantly in terms of the gender index.” The limitations of the physical monument as archive — especially the semantic ones — can be overcome by the digital archive, which offers the scope of democratization of memory and plurality of interpretations. Our conclusion therefore circles back to the problem where we started — and the answer to this tension is the digital space itself, which deconstructs the crystallized memory at the site of the monument and paves a way into its intricacies.

As perhaps the first student-led non-funded Digital Humanities endeavor, the “Plaques of Presidency” was planned as a pilot project. With adequate funding, we hope to expand our scope to two larger Digital Humanities projects — Plaques of College Street, and Plaques of Kolkata, both of which will inquire into the (post)colonial past of this metropolis. As undergraduate students, this project was our first engagement with the Digital Humanities, and we learnt much about marginal sites of history, the ways in which the digital becomes a supplement to the physical in the space of the archive, and most of all, the learning opportunities that digital tools have to offer to the literary classroom and to the humanities student. The act of curation and archiving was, therefore, above all, an introspection on the very idea of humanities for us.

Sources:

Ingold, Tim. “Against space: place, movement, knowledge.” Boundless worlds, an anthropological approach to movement, ed. Peter Kirby, UK: Berghahn Books (2009), pp. 29–43.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations, №26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), pp. 7–24.

Robb, Peter. “Memory, Place and British Memorials in Early Calcutta.” Memory, Identity and the Colonial Encounter in India: Essays in Honour of Peter Robb, ed. Ezra Rashkow, Sanjukta Ghosh and Upal Chakrabarti, UK: Routledge (2018), pp. 31–53.

Contributors

Sohini Sengupta is a student of English Literature at Presidency University. Her interests include Digital Humanities, Postcolonial Studies and Fantasy literature. She also takes interest in aesthetics, animal rights and environmental concerns, and interactions between visual arts and literature.

Sourav Chattopadhyay is a student of English literature at Presidency University. His research interests include Digital Humanities, Renaissance Literature and Bengal Studies. He is currently engaged in a personal project of digitizing audio recordings of live concerts from the 1990s’ Bengali musical scene.

Blog of Digital Humanities Alliance for Research and Teaching Innovations(DHARTI), an initiative towards organising and facilitating digital practices in India