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Notes from the archive

Over the course of the initial building up of the Archives, over 40 people worked for various periods of time between 2016 and 2019. In this section, people who have worked in the Archives team will share their reflections. The Archives is also open to guest contributors. If you are interested, write to us: archives@ncbs.res.in

 

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Fruit flies, an inebriometer and a jigsaw puzzle: The first look at the K.S. Krishnan Papers

Bangalore, Jan 10 2019

Marisha Thakur Karwa 
 

When I first entered the NCBS campus in August 2017 and said that I was there to work in the Archives, the security personnel had no idea what I was talking about. “Archives,” I insisted. “Aar-chai-ves?” they asked, with hesitation. 

Given that archives are not entrenched in the academic or cultural arena in India, the very concept of repositories is thus alien for most of us. The reality is that the word has no etymological connection in the Indian context. It has Greek origins in the word for government. There really is no good reason why anyone would know what it is or what an acceptable pronunciation should be.

 I had no background in archival science, nor had I worked at one before. I am a writer. And I had only ever set foot inside an archive once because I had to report on the Maharashtra State Archive for a newspaper feature. That archive, I discovered, was a treasure trove, an accessible way to explore the past and examine – in a very physical manner – the objects that constitute and build history. So when I chanced upon a tweet seeking people to help set up the NCBS Archive in mid-2017, I was thrilled. It was a window to examine the history of Indian science, the way it had been shaped and moulded in the not-too-distant past, the building of an institution and to get an intimate look at the life and work of some scientists.

At least that was the romanticised notion I harboured until Venkat Srinivasan briefed me, over email, about what I’d be expected to do in the archives. He had a dossier (in constantly-being-updated mode) that he wanted everyone to be well-versed with. The first four of us came from different backgrounds: Ananya is an undergraduate history student who, incidentally, came back for a second stint in the Archives in December 2018. V.S. Pragadheesh is a scientist who was then a post-doctoral student at NCBS. And Vrushal Pendharkar, like me, is a writer. All of us – had plunged into unknown territory and were now navigating through such words as ‘material’, ‘objects’, ‘records’, ‘original order’, ‘finding aid’ and so on. Pragadheesh and I were assigned to K.S. Krishnan’s papers. And those words would make little sense when we would be in the first-floor mezzanine office of K.S. Krishnan in the South Colonnade Laboratories of NCBS. Office 24D had been uninhabited, and had remained largely untouched in its arrangement, since Krishnan’s passing away in 2014. Our task was to examine every item, be it a piece of paper or a three-dimensional object, that the office held, understand its scientific and/or personal value and represent it in the archive in a manner that mirrored the creator’s method/process. Like naïve children, the two of us would empty drawers and pour out the contents of every cabinet only to put everything back in place as we’d found it. The ‘original order’ in the KSK office, as we’d started calling it, reflected order in chaos.

While his library of over 250 books, collection of marine cone snails, molluscs, and the famed inebriometer (that he devised for anesthetic experiments on the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster) were easy to document, we were bewildered by the laboratory equipment of all shapes and sizes, copies of students theses dating back to 1987, thousands of pages of lab recordings, dozens of files and folders, copies of proposals for evaluations, entire collections of magazines, random lists of birds spotted on field trips, to-do lists, e-tickets and boarding passes, financial statements and random sheets with doodles.

Working in the KSK office was akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle sans the benefit of a reference image. Several of Krishnan’s colleagues remarked that he was the only person who knew exactly what could be found where in the office. His younger son, Anand, said that often times, Krishnan himself was unable to decipher his handwriting. It was tedious work and we soldiered on until we were broadly able to categorise and classify all the material in the office. 

It is pertinent to note here that this was not the office that Krishnan occupied for a large part of his career. While he did frequently visit the NCBS campus from his base at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, he became joint faculty at NCBS as late as in 2003 and relocated to NCBS full time only in 2008. We don’t really know over what period of time the material found its way into this office. 

Any archival collection is bound to be replete with gaps since we deal with found objects when we start. These gaps will keep getting filled over time as more objects find their way to the archive. While some of these chasms have arisen out of genuine lack of information, others mirror the original, rather baffling arrangement of the said material. We spent hours interviewing people and trying to figure out the narrative underlying Krishnan’s scientific research. Many of his colleagues offered opinions that didn’t quite converge. 

In the end, Krishnan’s own thoughts, haphazardly written on sheets or even scraps of paper, on subjects ranging from biology pedagogy in India, or acoustics, or fraud in science, or even his letters became our accidental dividend.

Draft 1: September 2017. Draft 2: January 2019

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