Memories of an archivist

Pioneer of microfilming in Nepal has made it his life’s mission to preserve ancient documents

Balaram Chitrakar. Photos: SUMAN NEPALI

When Balaram Chitrakar was only 10, he started helping his father in a photo studio in inner city Kathmandu to develop photos in darkroom. By age 12, Chitrakar was already a bonafide photographer.

By the time he finished high school in 1959, his father had handed him the keys to the studio. He attended Trichandra College during the day and developed film by night.

“Perhaps because photography had become my passion it did not matter that I worked all night,” says Chitrakar, now 82.

In 1967, as he finished his BSc exam Chitrakar joined the Department of Archeology’s Bir Library. But during the first few months, all he was made to do was keep written records of the documents.

He realised that library users, mostly foreign researchers, had access to original texts and documents of historical importance, as a result of which they had become torn and damaged. 

So Chitrakar proposed to the Director of the Archeology Department to make duplicate copies of documents so the originals were preserved. The department accepted it and set aside Rs800 for him to buy a camera.

Microfilm archiving in Nepal

Chitrakar then began to make photocopies of documents, the first time this was done. Impressed with his work, the Department of Archaeology sent him to India to be trained in microfilming. 

“Microfilms had not been introduced in Nepal at the time, so I used my curiosity and made an effort during training to figure out how the practice could be brought into application back home,” Chitrakar recalls.

When he returned in 1969, the Bir Library was incorporated into the Department of Archaeology’s National Archives. The Nepal government had also agreed with their German counterparts to make microfilms of Nepal’s archival documents, one copy of which would be with Nepal and the other sent to Germany.

Microfilming in Nepal
Balarama Chitrakar with German representative Bernhard Kolver (third from right).(Photo: suman)

German state-of-the-art equipment, including cameras and dark rooms were used to microfilm 29,000 documents during the first phase of the five-year project. The team worked every day for five years, microfilming many old books and paintings that Patan and Bhaktapur wanted preserved. 

In 1972, King Birendra personally took an interest in Chitrakar’s work and helped him with preserving the archives. The work continued for 25 years during which 182,000 manuscripts, inscriptions, copper plates, and other objects of archaeological significance were microfilmed.

Chitrakar travelled to Helambu, Langtang, Pokhara, Manakamana, Janakpur and elsewhere to preserve more archival religious documents.  

He even went to microfilm archives in Dhaka. 

By 1993 Chitrakar found there was a storage unit of microfilms but it was not temperature and humidity controlled. With his help, the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya in Patan also began microfilming its archives. 

After 30 years, Chitrakar retired in 2001, and some of the documents he archived are 1,700 years old. But since then, the fragile microfilms themselves need to be preserved with digitisation.

Microfilming in Nepal
Balram Chitrakar in Lumbini stydying microfiliming.

The microfilms Chitrakar had so painstakingly preserved are beginning to deteriorate due to ‘Vinegar Syndrome’— a chemical reaction that decays the emulsion in film.  

Microfilms have a lifespan of 100 years, but in Nepal they have begun to deteriorate in half that time. The National Archive has more than 200,000 positives and negatives of ancient texts and documents, out of which 500 are already damaged beyond repair.

The Department of Archaeology submitted the Microfilm Reel Preservation Action Plan to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation in 2014 but the Ministry has not done much. 

Nepal stands to lose its archive of archaeological objects, and 82-year-old Chitrakar stands to lose his life’s work and legacy. He preserved historical documents by microfilming them which themselves now need to be preserved.

“The fact that these microfilms are in a state of decay means that my entire life’s work will have gone to waste,” says Chitrakar wearily. “And what will we have left if we fail to conserve these microfilms?”  

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