Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Insights from the Annual Conference, Oral History Association of India, Gauhati, Assam

The third Annual Conference on Public Memory and Oral History was organized on the 13th and 14th of November 2017 by the Oral History Association of India https://ohaindia.wordpress.com/ and the Department of History, Gauhati University, Assam. This conference was a significant gathering of esteemed historians, scholars, researchers and students of history where there was free exchange of ideas as well as discussions on various issues concerning oral history, its significance and the challenges the discipline faces.

Oral history can be understood as “a method of conducting historical research through recorded interviews between a narrator with personal experience of historically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of adding to the historical record.” (Source: https://guides.library.ucsc.edu/oralhist). The oral history association defines oral history as: “Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events.”

The practice of oral history is growing in India and its role and importance increasing. The participation of delegates from across the country reflected this at the conference.  Inaugurating the conference, the Honorable Vice Chancellor of Gauhati University, Dr. Mridul Hazarika, while elaborating on the significance of oral history said, “oral history will take a central position in history in the days to come. Oral history recognizes the role of those people who appear to be least significant”. He also emphasized that the privileged section of the society is a small component and it cannot write and rewrite history without taking on board the underprivileged people’s history.

Similar sentiment was expressed in the presidential address by Professor Meeta Deka, former head of the department of history, Guwahati University and the President of OHAI.  She emphasized that “oral history is the repository of those not in power”. She also pointed out that the history of ethnic communities across the world is largely oral. 

The founding member of OHAI and its ex-president Professor P K Srivastava in his address at the conference said that, “history when started was oral. Memory was history till the nineteenth century”. This fact has also been highlighted in an article by Deshpande, Anirudh (2017) ‘Past, Present and Oral History’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol LII No 29, pp 38-42. The author states, “Till the 19th century, when the modern classroom and the seminar emerged in European Universities, non-professional historians wrote history”. 

Further highlighting the significance of the discipline of oral history, renowned oral historian Allessandro Portelli, also a professor of Anglo-American literature at the University of Rome La Sapienza, narrated as follows: “Oral history gains significance with the increasing mistrust of the official history. Oral history is the history of the marginalized. Oral history is respectful of people’s ability to speak, it respects the freedom of expression, it is proud of people’s heritage and recognizes the ability of people to be authors and creators”. 

There were several interesting presentations by scholars who have adopted the discipline of oral history to further their work, research and to increase the knowledge of history. Their work showed that oral history not only fills the gaps but brings in new knowledge and perspective to history.  The power and the strength of oral history as a discipline as well as its unique characteristics could be gauged from the following presentations at the conference. 

Professor Shiela Bora, senior historian who has taught at the university of Gauhati and who has taught women’s history at Harvard University, talked of how little was known of Kanaklata Barua in spite of being one of the youngest martyrs of the freedom movement of India. Kanaklata fell to British bullets in the Quit India movement of 1942 while trying to hoist the tricolor at Gohpur police station in Assam. Professor Bora talked of almost complete absence of written documents or archives concerning Kanaklata in spite of hers being a very brave and a unique struggle. She narrated how it was the medium of oral history that allowed her to reconstruct the account of Kanaklata’s courageous life in absence of other sources.  This account is now published by National Book Trust as part of its series on women pioneers of the country.  

Similarly Professor Indira Chowdhury, senior and founding member of OHAI, presented her work of oral history furthering the history of partition of India and Bangladesh. Professor Chowdhury explained how oral history was important in the reconstruction of not just the events but the impact of partition on people and communities as there is very little known about this momentous event in the country that impacted deeply the lives of large number of people.

Professor Fleur D’Souza who was the head of the department of history, St. Xavier College, Mumbai, presented a paper titled ‘Oral History as a pedagogical tool’. She narrated her own experience in getting students interested in the subject of history through the use of oral history as a tool. In different years, she selected different topics that were less explored and encouraged students to increase their knowledge through oral history accounts of the people. Some of the topics explored by her students included the history of the Sindhi community in Mumbai, the forgotten history of the Mumbai riots soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, etc. She also talked of the responsibility of giving back to the community from where the oral source is collected and the sense of responsibility that is generated among the students towards the community through the discipline of oral history.  

Besides this, there were several other papers that were presented at the conference that highlighted oral history as an important tool in the study of the past. 

The presenters and the participants at the conference also discussed the many concerns and challenges faced by oral history as a discipline. One of the main concerns raised uniformly was that academic historians in general disregard and do not recognize the method of oral history as being professional, as having academic rigor and or as being reliable. In fact, the founding member of OHAI, Professor P K Srivastava in his presentation referred to history as ‘professional history’ as distinguished from ‘oral history’. When asked as to why he makes this distinction he said, “This is because historians do not consider oral history of significance”. 

However Professor Deka stressed that “in the past few decades public memory as a tool and a source has become very popular not only in writing public history but also in the humanities, social sciences and the term is used in disciplines like architecture, communication studies, gender studies, English, history, philosophy, political science, religion and sociology”. 

The other issue that was discussed, although inconclusively was about the need for standardizing the methodology of oral history particularly in the Indian context. Professor Rena Laisram highlighted that although significant, “oral history methodology has remained at the margins of social science research and one of the reasons is the lack of a clear frame work”. Professor Rajib Handique presented a paper on methodological issues of oral history and ways to institutionalize as well as streamline oral history. But a consensus could not emerge about whether the discipline of oral history requires institutionalizing a standard methodology and how.

Having worked in documenting the oral history of the struggle around the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Dam for the past ten years, I feel the need for both - to have some standardized approaches and practices of oral history, and at the same time maintain flexibility to cater to different situations. Further, there is a need for developing oral history practices and approaches appropriate for the Indian context. Currently oral history has not been duly recognized and given the professional status it deserves in India, and this has often led researchers, students and oral history scholars in India to depend many times upon the practices that have evolved and developed in the West.

For example in the west emphasis may be given to the quality of sound and it may also be recommended that the recording could be done in a studio. However in a country like India with its size and diversity, it may not always be possible for an oral historian to avail the facility of a studio while recording.  Besides, ambient sound may be of significance particularly in recording the history of certain communities. In my recordings of the oral history of Adivasi leaders of the Narmada movement, which were done in their own villages, the ambient sounds of farming operations, farm animals, chicken and hens, etc. added a very different dimension. 

Interview (Oral History) Recording of Shankerbhai Kagda, Senior Adivasi Leader of Narmada Bachao Andolan. Photo: Nandini Oza

Some discussions were initiated at the conference to develop a repository of the oral history that is being generated in the country, and this issue needs further thought and attention.  

Senior Adivasi Leaders of Narmada Bachao Andolan listening to Oral History as Narrated by their own Community Leaders of the Struggle. Photo: Nandini Oza

To conclude, the conference made a strong case for the discipline of oral history to be given the place of importance and be recognized as an important source of history. This is particularly true for a country like India because otherwise Adivasi, Dalit, working class, women and the history of the marginalized will remain incomplete.