In the 1970s, Tamil writer and now director of Sparrow, C.S. Lakshmi, researching the lives of women writers, discovered the state archives didn’t file material under “Women’s History”. “Information on women was a corollary,” she says, “available, for example, under education or the right to vote.”
Attempting to answer the question “How do women choose their subjects?”, Lakshmi turned to what were then called “secondary sources” (primary sources equalled official state documents), asking the writers to help reconstruct their early lives and influences through interviews, personal diaries, letters, photographs, and even their handwritten manuscripts. The photographs stirred Lakshmi’s interest. She realized every album had two stock images—of the subject in a graduation gown, and a studio portrait, of her wearing a winsome expression and a sari. This was for prospective bridegrooms. “I also noticed that boys were photographed on tricycles, with an aeroplane in their hand, and girls with dolls,” says Lakshmi. “As adults, the theme continued.”
Lakshmi was fascinated by the seamless pigeonholing of women—even those who would grow to have independent and successful careers—as fragile, infantilized dependants. She discussed her findings with a friend, the historian Geraldine Hancock Forbes, who was collecting material of a similar nature from West Bengal. They agreed on the necessity for an archive that would present a woman’s point of view.
Ladies only: (clockwise from top) A portrait from Sparrow’s photography project archive; a poster of the Bengali film Pratham Kadam Phul ; a group photo of college women from educationist Gangutai Patwardhan’s collection; and a corner of the Sparrow’s book library. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
From Mumbai’s Versova suburb, just down from the fishing village, where Lakshmi and her husband—filmmaker Vishnu Mathur—had moved to from Delhi, Lakshmi scouted for a home and fellow caretakers for her project. Having worked extensively in state archives, she was determined hers would be autonomous and free to present its research in innovative ways; that it wouldn’t be restricted to feminist themes.
She chose a mascot famous for its tenacity and work ethic, the sparrow, and created from it an acronym (Sound and Picture Archives for Research On Women). Twenty boxes of material, two cupboards, two tables and a part-time librarian made for a promising start. But from the time Sparrow was registered in 1988, until January this year, when it found a permanent residence—an entire building in Dahisar East—the archives moved office repeatedly, lost employees to call centres, and struggled with funding. Now, Mumbai can boast of the largest archive of women’s history in India.
Several moments reiterated the need to press on. In 1994, at “Communalism, Violence and Women”, a workshop for college students in the wake of the Ayodhya riots, a young boy stood up and said to the adults present, “You people have created communalism.” “Then Neeraben (Desai, a Sparrow trustee),” recalls Lakshmi, “replied, ‘You know, I said the same thing to my parents. Don’t be surprised if your children say this to you’.”
Even friends, unknowingly, contributed to the shape of the archives. When Sparrow trustee Roshan G. Shahani confided that she was unable to get over the death of her mother, the Parsi educationist Allan P. Gimi in 1997, Lakshmi told her, “Why don’t you write a book on her life?” In 2000, Allan, Her Infinite Variety became part of Sparrow’s growing collection of accessibly written biographies of women mavericks. These include portraits of three Coorgi women—Ponamma (1866-1943), Subamma (1890-1940) and Neelamma (1921-1991)—as told by the fourth generation woman in the family, Veena Poonacha; and Paaniwali Bai (Rohini Gawankar, 2003), the biography of Mrinal Gore, whose nickname was drawn from her fight to bring drinking water to Mumbai’s suburban Goregaon neighbourhood.
Maharashtra has, in fact, proved to be a rich resource for Sparrow. Some of the archive’s most precious resources relate to women whose lives are entwined with the state’s feminist and cultural movement. Dalit activist Urmila Pawar, for instance, collaborated with Sparrow in interviewing little known Dalit women activists from the 1930s onwards. Amhihi Itihas Ghadavila, written by Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, was recently published in translation by Zubaan as We Also Made History. Neera Desai, pioneer of the women’s studies movement in India, has been interviewed for Global Feminisms, an international project created to gather archival-quality oral histories from 10 women in several countries, including India. Films on theatre journalist Sushma Deshpande, kathak dancer Damayanti Joshi and tamasha artiste Vithabhai, in the Digital Video Recording Project, are also recommended viewing.
Other oral history recordings, of which Sparrow currently has 1,093, are an important part of the NGO’s holdings. For some, the argument over whether memoirs are accurate research material is won by the fact that these voices—particularly if they belong to the ordinary or marginalized—bring the past to compelling life.
“A collector of photographs in Chennai,” Lakshmi recalls, “showed me a series of late 19th century women working on a plantation. The photos had been taken by the planter, an Englishman, and the women, in keeping with the times, were nude above the waist. No names were given behind the photos, each of which only said ‘A Pariah Woman’. They had no identity; they were what the owner saw them as. I told the collector, to his surprise, that I would never accept such photos. How did I know that the women had given their consent?”
Sparrow celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and at the end of October will see the fruition of an ambitious project—the publication of the first of five volumes of interviews with 87 writers writing in 23 languages. But Lakshmi has bigger plans. “I have a vision for a public museum,” she says, “a ‘power’ museum, punning on the word ‘power’, which will use all forms of technology to enable a journey into women’s history.”
Sonia Faleiro is the author of The Girland a contributor to AIDS Sutra: Hidden Stories from India.
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