Archival Contingencies and Eclectic Sources: Using Digitised Newspapers and Periodical Literature
In this post, Mobeen Hussain, Doctoral Candidate at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, tells us how she has used digitised Urdu newspapers and periodicals in her research.
In the summer of 2018, I travelled to Lahore to undertake research in various Pakistani archives including the Pakistani Research Society at the University of Panjab and the Punjab State Archives. Prior to my visit, I had spoken to various researchers about navigating archives in Punjab. One private library, the Abdul Majeed Khokhar Yadgar Library, was suggested to me and I was greatly looking forward to visiting. The Library, named as such to commemorate the collector’s father, is the personal collection of Mr. Zia Ullah Khokhar based in Gujranwala, a city about an hour and half away from Lahore. This Library consists of rare Urdu books, journals and periodical literature including preserved runs of women and children’s magazines collected diligently by the Khokhar and his father who had subscribed to several newspapers and magazines in late colonial period. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit this archive in person during my trip due to the poor health of the collector. However, the British Library’s Engendered Archive Programme (EAP) has digitised some material from this very Library, part of which is pertinent to my area of research.
EAP566/1/14/1/1 An advert for Lux soap in Avaz (1948)
My PhD project examines the intersections of racial politics, gender and beauty in late colonial and immediate post-independence India and Pakistan (c.1900-1950), specifically focusing on colourism and skin-lightening within discourses of hygiene, health and beautification. My source base consists of an eclectic mix of printed literature including periodicals, newspapers and instructional literature. Urdu magazines, such as Tahzib-i Nisvan (EAP566/2/1), as well as other literature held at the Khokar Memorial Library (EAP566/2) enabled me to collect a rich host of visual and textual ephemera. For instance, part of my thesis involves undertaking a survey of personal commodity advertising in various regional newspapers and magazines across early twentieth century India– commodities including soaps, creams, hair oils, powders, scents and domestic hygiene products. The collections digitised through EAP inform this survey by providing extensive examples of advertising. Other useful sources are the Amrita Bazaar Patrika newspaper (EAP262/1/1), a Calcutta based Hindi and English-language newspaper and Avaz, a fortnightly journal published by All India Radio (EAP566/1/14). Surveying advertising and marketing strategies in popular print mediums allows researchers to trace the evolution of particular products into Indian consumer markets, map the potentialities of consumer behaviours, and suggest how emerging middle-class subjects were fashioning themselves within conflicting urban modernities.
EAP566/5/6/1 advertising Paramount Brain Tonic and Paramount Body Cream (1931)
My thesis also looks at the role of aesthetic markers, skin colour and expressions of colourism in the burgeoning medium of matrimonial adverts. Matrimonial adverts were initially placed in caste association journals and newspapers and, by the 1920s, matrimonial columns were a consistent feature in dailies like Amrita Bazar Patrika as well as in other regional Indian newspapers. Matrimonial adverts also periodically appeared in women’s magazines such as Delhi-based Ismat (EAP566/1/2), commonly under headings such as “Rishta Zaroorat”, translating as match required. Lastly, my thesis also examines contemporary debates about domestic and personal self-fashioning. The Urdu-language women’s magazines available via EAP, such as Ismat, Tahzib-i-Niswan, and Saheli (EAP566/5/4), allow for insights into Muslim women’s voices in North India which supplement my research on other women’s magazines such as the Bengali-language Bangalakshmi and The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, an English-language monthly published in Madras. In Ismat magazine, for instance, columns on domestic health and hygiene practices demonstrate the ruptures between reformist western and indigenous interlocutors of health and how women navigated these knowledge forms in their quotidian practices.
EAP262/1/1/2512 Matrimonial column in Amrita Bazar Patrika (1936)
Not only has the Programme supplemented physical archival visits, I am also able “revisit” the digital archive; we have all made archival errors in note-taking, wish we could have taken a better photograph and have that one source we would like to go back to check– these virtual visits have been invaluable. There are definite merits of physically visiting an archive– the spontaneity of searching through documents, the materiality of the archive and the partially-digitisation practices which can obscure one’s phenomenological reading of an archive. Indeed, much can also be learned from engaging with the specialist knowledge of local archivists. However, like my experience in Pakistan, sometimes physical visits are not possible either due to archival difficulties or researcher restrictions. Physical travel is often a racialised, class and health-based privilege. Many researchers are at the mercy of visas and pernicious border controls and are dependent on extensive financial resources and healthy and able bodies. Undoubtedly, these issues disproportionately affect BAME researchers, those from poorly funded universities who have limited access to research grants, and those who may not have a pool of resources to tap into discrete from university infrastructures. Having access to digitised archives, though by no means an equaliser, does allow people to access materials for research that may not have been possible for previous generations. Indeed, during the current pandemic of Covid-19, the convenience and necessity of access to digitised archives allows those who are able to, to continue with some research. This year, many undergraduate and masters’ students completing desk-based dissertations will also benefit from the extensive EAP collections. I am certainly grateful to EAP for facilitating a useful contingency for my own research plans.