Travel Grant Series: Archival Research in National Archives of India

Summer Research Grant Report
Richard Forster
EWC Degree Fellow

Richard Foster

(EWC Degree Fellow Richard Forster)

This summer, with generous financial support from the EWC Alumni Association, I was able to spend two months conducting archival research for my Master’s Degree thesis in South Asian history at the National Archives of India in New Delhi. One of the aims of this research is to better understand the process by which India, at independence, came to adopt Hindi in the Devanagari script as its official language, despite the Indian National Congress’s longstanding commitment to a more inclusive formulation of Hindustani in both the Devanagari and the Urdu scripts. In order to pursue this and related questions I spent many hours in the Private Archives section of the NAI consulting files from the collections of senior Congress leaders from the 1930s to the 1950s, particularly those of the first President of independent India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, as well as stalwart proponents such of Hindi-Nagari such Purushottam Das Tandon and Sampurnanand. I believe my thesis has potential to offer new insights into the history of “communal” tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent, an ongoing source of conflict that continues to destabilize the prospects of peace and prosperity in the region.

In terms of professional development, this summer was enormously enriching for me. Simultaneously developing my own research and organizational skills while coping with the sometimes byzantine and often mysterious bureaucratic procedures of the NAI was often frustrating and challenging, to say the least. Ultimately however, the experience I gained over the course of this summer, and the friendships developed with various individual archival staff members and fellow researchers, will, I hope, serve me well in future projects among these and other archives.

richard fosterOne of the greatest challenges (and therefore potential rewards) of my chosen topic is the need to work with primary sources in languages other than English, namely Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani. While I anticipated that this trip would give me many opportunities to practice speaking and listening in Hindi-Hindustani, I quickly discovered, not too surprisingly, that many of the essential primary source documents pertaining to my topic are also in these languages. Moreover, many of these documents employ styles of handwriting that vary significantly from standard printed forms of the script.

Even printed sources from this period often employed variations of what has since become standard Hindi script. I have therefore had the more unexpected opportunity to begin to develop new skills in reading these various forms of orthography and typography! This is, of course, in addition to building upon my basic knowledge of these languages and expanding my vocabulary so that, having cracked a particular style of handwriting, I can also begin to understand the nuances of what is actually being said. While all this has made the process of research much more time-consuming than had I chosen a topic or field with abundant sources in English, I welcome this opportunity to undertake training in this important aspect of scholarship of South Asia.

sample of handwritten source in hindi

(A sample of handwritten source in Hindi on the "Hindustani Controversy".)

As far as I am aware, many of the sources I was able to consult this summer have not previously been discussed by scholars in relation to the question of the politics and history of India’s national language. Although in the final analysis it will be for others to judge the significance of my discoveries, I am optimistic that my findings will add new depth to scholarly understandings of these important issues. At the very least, I am confident that this opportunity to conduct archival research has furnished me with the raw materials necessary to write successful Master’s thesis.

I am sincerely grateful to the EWC Alumni Association for its assistance, which significantly reduced the financial burden of undertaking this summer research. If I needed any external motivation in order to apply myself to the task at hand, the confidence placed in me by the Alumni Association in its decision to support my research ahead of what I am sure was a veritable host of very worthy applications, certainly bolstered my own resolve to make the most of this opportunity. I hope that this brief report has indicated a sense of what this support has meant to me personally as an aspiring scholar as well as something of the potential importance of the research itself. Thank you.


One thought on “Travel Grant Series: Archival Research in National Archives of India

  1. Nice report, congrats! You were spared reading Japanese handwriting, at least! Or even my Devanagari. As EWC alumnus, fmr AIIS Senior Performing and Creative Artist Fellow, 40-yr resident of Asia (India and Japan, mostly), I can relate to challenges in navigating living language, and its counterpart music. I could convince you that the complexities from variations in scripts, symbols and directions in which they flow are exponentially augmented when those two alteregos get together, especially in Japan.

    Best wishes, hope to see you along the line.

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