The Making Of ‘Her’Story

Documenting women’s stories and work is very much a part of development. Noted writer Dr. C.S. Lakshmi tells us why.

Documenting women’s stories and work is very much a part of development. Noted writer Dr. C.S. Lakshmi tells us why.

Interview by Aparna V. Singh

It is often said that history is written by the winners. If that is true, what does the absence of women from much of history mean?

Among the few initiatives to address this omission is Sound and Picture ARchives for Research on Women (SPARROW), an organization with a very unusual mission, “to build a national archives for women with print, oral history and pictorial material.” We interview here the Founder of SPARROW, the well-known author and researcher Dr.C.S.Lakshmi, who writes in Tamil under the pen name, Ambai.

Aparna V. Singh (AS): SPARROW has now been in existence for more than 2 decades. In today’s hyper-connected world, how relevant is the original mission – to archive women’s work in print, audio or visual formats?

Dr. C.S.Lakshmi (CSL): Why do you think that a hyper-connected world does not need a knowledge heritage? We are archiving women’s history and lives and documenting various aspects of what we call the politics of everyday life.  Even if you are only dealing with the here and now history is being created and it should be documented and recorded.

Anyone who thinks that this is irrelevant would be a person who lives under the delusion that anything we need to know has only to be downloaded. So our original mission remains and our dissemination of this knowledge keeps pace with latest ways of sharing knowledge and we do differentiate between knowledge and information.

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AS: You have mentioned challenges over the years with funding, with finding a suitable place to work out of. Is there a feeling that history as created by women is not a “critical” project in a country like India with more important issues? How do you answer such criticism?

CSL: We now have a place of our own to work out of. But it has been a difficult journey and we have been literally swimming against the current. It is not that history as created by women is not a “critical” project in a country like India but it is the kind of history that a developing nation is looking for and the kind of history that we want to archive.

I once wrote a paper called Archiving in Times of Development. Archiving women’s lives and history is not seen as part of development for development is a quantitative process and archiving is a qualitative process. Even funders from abroad wanted to fund only those projects which had “stakeholders” and “beneficiaries” and visible results that could be quantified. In a situation like this an archiving effort such as ours was not seen as an effort directly aiding development.

We answer such criticism by saying that our efforts are very much part of development as development needs to know what was there before and needs to cover areas of women’s lives not normally taken into consideration to know the quality of women’s life so that policies can be made to add to the quality of their life and alter their life and not merely see growth as development.

In my language Tamil, we use two words for development. One is “valarchi” and the other is “mempadu”. “Valarchi” means growth and “mempadu” means upliftment, raising the level of something. I feel that efforts such as archiving have to do with “mempadu”; it is an effort aimed at adding to the quality of life. This is what we tell our critics.

AS: What is the quality of the material that SPARROW seeks to archive? Are there certain criteria for material to be included in the archive?

CSL: Where women’s history is concerned I feel that any material is part of women’s history. A historian friend of mine opened the trunk of a friend’s mother and found receipts for books she never imagined she would have read in the thirties. They were just receipts and slips for books she had ordered for purchase or from a library but they told so much about her life.

Sometimes we visit people’s homes and find a painting or framed embroidery hanging in an obscure corner and will find that an old widowed aunt or some other woman had done it and that her creativity was not taken seriously. Any little thing has a story to tell. So we don’t leave out any material. So we collect print material, photographs, newspaper material, print visuals, brochures, pamphlets, films etc.

We don’t set limits as to the kind of material we can collect and are always open to surprises. But oral history is our anchor project and dialogues with women from various walks of life will continue to be our major focus. We try to cover a wide range of areas like literature, Indian freedom movement, Dalit history, environment, art and culture, women in the left and other progressive movements, tribal women, NGO women, health, traditional healers and so on.

AS: Currently what are the ways in which ordinary people can access the collections that SPARROW has put together?

CSL: Students and researchers come and consult the archives. We conduct workshops and colleges, women’s groups and other groups request us to come and screen films which we do. They also come to the archives to watch films or consult books and other material. We have consultation rules. We also publish and take the archives out in different ways through exhibitions, workshops, camps and cultural festivals and through website postings.

AS: Finally, as a writer whose stories are often about the inner world of Indian women, do you see a continuity or relationship between your work as a writer and with documenting women’s work in India?

CSL: My writing and my work are very close to each other. They flow into each other very often. My archiving and research work involves a lot of travelling and meeting people and being in different cultures and situations. This expands my vision and my areas of experience. And some of these experiences enter my stories in an abstract way.

*Photo credit: AbsoluteJewelry (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License)


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