C.S. Lakshmi | The her story
This author and historian has spent the past 25 years archiving women’s lives and stories
Freedom from forgetting | C.S. Lakshmi
A key is thrown down to us from a window on the second floor. “Lock the door on your way up,” we’re told, as the curious face retreats. Ascending the stairs, we cross a room on the first floor which has rows of gleaming shelves—the sort one sees in a well-kept library—with its door invitingly left open. A board that declares this to be the Neera Desai Memorial library hangs serenely, bearing a photograph of the late feminist, credited for shaping women’s studies in India, reading a book. On the second floor, we meet the face at the window. Pooja Pandey, administration officer, holds her hand out for the key and offers to escort me to the top floor, where C.S. Lakshmi, the force behind the country’s first dedicated archives for women, sits.
Twenty-five years on, Lakshmi’s biggest relief is that her organization, Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, or SPARROW, owns three floors in an apartment complex in a northern Mumbai suburb. Her struggle for freedom from oblivion has often found a worthy opponent in the city’s real estate. The trust was started by the renowned Tamil author, who writes under the pen name of Ambai, in her bedroom in 1988. As it grew bigger, and donations ebbed and wavered over the years, SPARROW moved several homes: a garage in Versova, a tiny flat in Andheri (East), another in Juhu. In 2008, however, it settled in Dahisar and the office was named, rather appropriately, The Nest.
Ambai’s migration, however, began many years before SPARROW. Born in Coimbatore and raised till the age of 7 in what was then Bombay before shifting to Bangalore, Ambai, now 69, completed her doctorate in American studies at New Delhi’s Indian School of International Studies (which merged with the Jawaharlal Nehru University around the time she attended it) and then thought of creating archives that would document and preserve stories of, and by, women.
Back then, explains Ambai, as the rain falls heavily on the leafy lane outside, there was a clan of women writers if one wanted to pursue women’s writings. But to understand their context, crucial documents such as journals, women’s magazines or private letters were not thought important. “Soft material, or non-official documents, was considered insignificant when it came to women’s writings and writings on women,” says Ambai, who admits that she was often dissuaded from pursuing a postdoctorate on women’s writings in India by peers or seniors. “All that is junk,” they would tell her.
Ambai, then in her 20s, had had it with the moralists. A year before she went to New Delhi, she had taught at a village school in Tamil Nadu (“I was a great Gandhian then,” she says), but was asked to leave. Not only did she fail to admonish a young student who wrote her classmate a letter pledging life-long allegiance, she also told her students about the importance of wearing undergarments. She refused to pray before an idol of the principal’s daughter that was erected in the school compound, where the assembly was held each morning.
In October 1967, Ambai reached the Capital. By then, she had become a published author, having written her first story at the age of 16 for a Tamil magazine. Earlier that year, she had written another piece called Siragugal Muriyum (Wings Get Broken), about a sensitive woman married to an insensitive man. To her dismay, none of the magazines she approached wanted the piece. She sought out an editor of a Tamil publication in New Delhi and asked him what was wrong with her story. She recalls that meeting well. “He came to the hostel I was staying at, and we spoke standing at the gate. He said there was nothing wrong with my story, but I had sent it to all the wrong magazines.”
“That’s when I began to think of why women write what they write,” she says.
A problem loomed: If no one thought writings about women were significant, then no one would make the effort to document them. Ambai realized that archives which preserved writings, pictorial representations, oral recordings and subsequently, videos of and regarding women, were the need of the hour. “Every woman has achieved something through acts of assertion. I don’t think there is any history that is not worth being seen and retrieved,” she says.
In 1974, Ambai completed her PhD and began teaching at a few colleges in New Delhi, including the all-women Miranda House. The same year, the first women’s studies centre was inaugurated in Mumbai’s Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University, or SNDT. It was meant to happen: Ambai got in touch with the few assertive women behind that centre, who offered to support her project. These included Neera Desai, Vina Mazumdar, secretary of the first committee on the status of women in India (CSWI), which brought out the seminal report “Towards Equality” in 1974, and the indomitable feminist academician Maithreyi Krishnaraj.
Ambai says she resisted opening the archives as part of the university. “I wanted these archives to have complete autonomy. Else the university would have had something to say about what we should store and what we mustn’t.”
With 10-year funding from the Dutch organization Hivos, SPARROW began testing its wingspan. In 1997, it began to make video-documentations of women, and over the course of that year, conducted six visual history workshops with artists from cinema, theatre, sculpture, dance and traditional painting. By 2008, it had made 25 films. These included films on yesteryear actor, producer and distributor Pramila (born Esther Victoria Abraham), from whom they also took several black and white photographs of film stills and movie posters for the archives; photographer Homai Vyarawalla; and political activists such as Ima Thokchom Ramani Devi from Manipur and Jarjum Ete from Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2006, SPARROW held a five-day writers’ camp at Kashid, a few kilometres from Mumbai. Over 50 writers in 20 languages participated. SPARROW published the English translations of their writings, accompanied by author interviews, in a series starting 2008 with Hot Is The Moon, edited by poet Arundhathi Subramaniam (the first volume comprised excerpts from interviews, stories and poems of writers in four languages—Tamil, Kannada, Konkani and Tulu).
The fourth volume, If The Roof Leaks, Let It Leak..., with poems and stories from Hindi, Santhali, Sindhi, Maithili, Punjabi and Dogri, has just been released.
Simultaneously, SPARROW has also maintained archives of books, newspaper clippings, cartoons and other pictorial representations, and advertisements filed assiduously under headings such as “Alcohol/Cigarettes”, “Condoms”, “Household” and “Textiles”, among other things. “We decided to focus on biographies and autobiographies, written by men and women, instead of theoretical books,” says Ambai.
Each shelf has a tiny muslin potli (pouch) that contains a home-brew (of camphor and spices) to keep away silverfish. Old, brittle texts are wrapped in handmade paper which, as librarian Sharmila Sontakke informs us, is desirable wrapping material. The first floor also houses two special rooms—an archival vault, with dehumidifiers and air conditioners, which contains beta tapes of the 25 films they have made, and another room (also equipped with an AC and a dehumidifier), with all the audio tapes of their oral history recordings of women.
“The activity of archiving needs to be objective,” says Ambai, when quizzed about whether she chooses to leave out stories or histories that don’t follow a feminist ideology. “It is not for me to judge. It is more important for me to know about their lives,” she says.
For Ambai, the act of archiving itself is a feminist intervention. And history, she knows, will remember that.
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