"There are such great moments in history in every company, every organisation, and that has to be preserved"

TR Donn Doongaji, former MD of Tata Services and Honorary Advisor to the Tata Central Archives explains why archiving is so essential for every organisation and shares some delightful anecdotes from his 50+ years with the Tata Group.

Tata Central Archives was the first ISO certified which makes it a global benchmark. It also has a platinum rating from the Indian Green Building Council, which is the highest in Environment Management in India.

His interest in archiving, says Mr Doongaji, is of a long vintage, dating back to his early childhood. In his collection are old letters from his mother, school certificates, artefacts and memorabilia preserved as reminders of things and events that left a deep impression. Even today he revisits his archives when he needs some inspiration.

"Tata Central Archives has the platinum rating from the Indian Green Building Council, which is the highest in Environment Management in India. It was first to be ISO certified, so it's a benchmark. I took the former director of the British museum to see the Tata Central Archives, and he said, I am envious of what you have created, because nowhere have we seen an archive like that."

This abiding interest in preserving the past found expression in his key role in setting up the Tata Central Archives (TCA) in the 1980s. Among India’s first corporate archives, TCA is one of the best of its kind in the world. In this interview, we chronicle his experience of setting up the archives and find out why the future of every organisation—however big or small—benefits from a record of its past and present!

Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Why do you feel it’s important for every organisation to set up an archive?
There are such great moments in history in every company, every organisation, and that has to be preserved.

A.Very often, we are so focussed on the future and making it better, that we fail to concentrate on what happened in the past. That is where the role of a company archive comes in.

It is a common perception that archives prevent us from repeating past mistakes. I think that's a narrow view. It is important to realise that archives can also inspire. They can guide your future, not by avoiding mistakes, but by inspiring you to create something greater. An archive can provide a road map for a company to learn from past mistakes, ruminate on present-day happenings, and have an explanation and justification for all future actions. So, archiving is not a deadpan kind of activity. It is recording the present to inspire people 40 years later by what you have created today. I believe that today is the yesterday of tomorrow, so don't fail to record the present

I believe that today is the yesterday of tomorrow, so don't fail to record the present.

Talking about the Tata Central Archives, Mr Doongaji shares an interesting anecdote which led to setting up the archives. "I think the concept goes back to 1953 when Air India was nationalised. JRD Tata wanted some papers from Air India, and he was shocked to hear that they had all disappeared. Nothing was available of the past, other than his own personal papers which were his archives. There are such great moments in history in every company, every organisation, and they have to be preserved.

Then later, Russi Lala was doing research for writing his book, The Creation of Wealth, and was looking for documents and information on Tatas. He found so many of them and such lovely memorabilia, invaluable photographs, letters between Mahatma Gandhi and the Tata leadership. There was so much history that needed to be preserved that he discussed the idea of an archives with JRD and that's how the Tata Central Archives came to be. JRD wrote to all MDs of Tata companies, saying that you must not allow any valuable paper or artifact to be lost to time."

Q. How does an archive inspire and influence people?

A. An archive influences each stakeholder differently. A legacy organisation becomes a trusted name among the people because of its history. When a vendor walks into the archives, they are going to be inspired by the history and feel a deeper sense of commitment to the organisation. For a customer, it seals their trust and affection and invokes a sense of pride in owning their product.

It sets benchmarks for employees and future leaders and shapes their mindset. It allows them to carry forward the values of the organisation and live up to the legacy of the brand.

Mr Doongaji often talks about how Tata values have shaped him as a person and a professional. His interactions with extraordinary leaders and their beliefs moulded him. And his biggest learning from them, he says, is that love is greater than power and authority. As this anecdote about Mr Nani Palkhivala illustrates:

“Mr. Palkhivala, being a legal luminary and a taxation expert, I didn't work closely with him. I was one of his silent admirers, like the millions that he had. But one day, I had some work with him, so I went to meet him. It was around 3:30 pm. At that time, at least in those days, that was the Director’s teatime. So, a Taj tray comes, with a beautiful starched white mat, a silver kettle, a silver jug for the milk, a silver sugar bowl, and two pastries from the La Patisserie (the Taj Hotel’s pastry shop). Since it was teatime, Mr Palkhivala had perhaps already ordered three trays, but we were just the two of us. So the three trays came, and Mr Palkhivala poured his tea, and I poured mine after him. Now, I was looking at those cakes waiting to eat them. But Mr Palkhivala was not touching the cakes, so how could I dig into them if the boss isn’t touching them?

“After a while, I couldn't resist it. I said, sir, are you expecting somebody else to join us? He said, ‘No, no, I must tell you something. Every day, even if I am alone, I always order two trays. I ordered three because you are here today. I only drink tea; I don't eat those cakes. But I order them because then there are four pastries going out, and the peons put those pastries in their little lunch boxes and take them for their children. Do you think they would ever be able to afford a Taj pastry on their own?’

“What a lesson that was. I get goosebumps telling you this story. This is what makes a great person.”

Q. There is a lot of history that one has to uncover while setting up an archive. How does the process begin and where does one start?

A. It starts with accession. You must gather all the information, as far as possible from all corners -- from your vendors, customers, whosoever you have interacted with and put it all together. You must index it and compartmentalise the information. And, as you go forward, you should straight away classify all important information as future archival material.

After that, comes the process of, at times, restoring and preserving. Sometimes, you may have old papers and memorabilia that need to be preserved. Different items require different processes, and you need to learn the process.

At TCA, we have papers which date back to 1898 and 1880, and it is very important that you preserve these precious documents and paper is not easy to preserve. So, we have temperature control, and acid-free boxes, in which we have kept the papers. The staples we use corrode after a while and you will get those brown stains where the papers have been stapled. So, you must first get rid of them. You know it's okay for normal use, but for archival material, you have to be very careful.

You have to be careful also about the authenticity of very old material. I remember an interesting incident about this.

Noshir Dastur who had worked with me in Navsari, came to me one day and said, “Sir, I want to present you something.” He said he wanted to give me the shirt that Jamsetji Tata wore, and the collar. You know, in those days, collars were separate, the shirt was there, then you had cuff links with it. It was a peculiar attire and his little jacket on top of it. That's the best New Year gift that I could have ever received in my life.

But doubt lingered in my mind. I said, is it really Jamsetji Tata’s? Because that was going back 100 plus years, I said, how do I know it's Jamsetji Tata’s attire? It could be your great grandfather’s, I said to Noshir. He said, “I knew you will ask me that question, so here is a photograph where Jamsetji Tata is wearing that dress.” Noshir’s father or grandfather, I think, was Jamsetji Tata’s housekeeper. I was elated, I had never in my life felt that thrilled. So, I wanted to keep it. But then I realised that Jamsetji was a person that belonged to the world and not to me alone. I gave it to the archives. It was difficult parting with it, but I realised that it would be unfair to keep it with me.

Q. How do you decide what should be in your archives and what should not?

A. An easy way to move forward and understand what needs to be in the archives is to have a clear vision of what the company archives should stand for. That’s the first step.

An archive should be alive. It must glow and pulsate.

If your vision is to inspire generations, think about what you can display in your archives that would inspire people. Think about how you need to present information and the story that you would like to tell. Different visions need different processes.

An archive shouldn't just be created as a record room. It should be alive. It must glow and pulsate. Don't create a record room or a grave. Create a living entity. That will happen only if you are passionate about your organisation.

Q. Is there an inherent danger in creating an archive – whether corporate or individual - that only focuses on the good and hides the flaws?

A. That is a very important question. An honest archivist will never do that. He will faithfully chronicle the negatives or conflicts that occurred during an organisation’s history and journey. Otherwise, what’s the point? History has to be recorded, warts and all. If a research scholar comes into the archives, they must get to see the story from all perspectives. With the Tata Group, their intellectual honesty is supreme. So, no one ever told me not to archive a conflict or a negative story about Group companies.

The journey of an organisation is one of the great triumphs and great defeats. What is important is how it rises from failure. And failure holds important lessons as well.

Q. Does the process of archiving become easier with technology?

A.Imagine collecting data and documents when there was no technology. Today, you have the benefit of technology. But technology evolves rapidly and suddenly becomes obsolete. And when that happens there are no support systems. So, you must learn to walk with time and periodically upgrade your IT tools and systems.

Creating and sustaining a corporate archive is no mean feat. For Mr Doongaji, the Tata Central Archives was a passion project because he has a deep attachment to the Tata Group. Archiving, he says, is something he approaches from a place of deep personal introspection. It is in his DNA, so to speak:

I have been an archivist since my childhood. I lived with my grandmother in Nagpur away from my mother. I was only 5 years old, and I used to miss my mother very much. So, we wrote postcards to each other in Marathi. I still have them today, now 70 years have passed. I started collecting photographs and letters, archives of my own little story and history. I have a letter from the principal of my college when I was awarded the Gold Medal for standing first class first in my subject. I did that during my career as well, and that's why I was able to write my book (see details below) because I had my own story so well recorded. There is nothing in this book which I cannot substantiate.

Mr Doongaji recently delved into his archives to write Tata, Living By Values, where he talks about his professional journey with the Tatas and how the Tata values shaped him as a leader and a person. In the book, he narrates interesting anecdotes about working with legendary leaders like JRD Tata, Sumant Moolgaokar, Nani Palkhivala and Russi Mody.

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