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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Words of Mouth

The first ever conference on oral history in India seeks to highlight hidden stories of our past.

Written by Seema Chishti |
November 14, 2013 12:27:51 am

History was crafted out of “facts”,said the British historian E H Carr. Facts,which were like “fish on a fishmonger’s slab”. What is “official” history,whose history it documents and whose it skips,has been a concern for historians the world over for several decades now.

A bunch of Indian documentors,who believe there are other fish in the sea than official histories acknowledge,will gather in Bangalore on Monday and formally inaugurate the country’s first Oral History Association of India (OHAI). From discussing how life was for Indian freedom fighters in Cellular Jail on the Andamans to looking at memories of 1984 riots and the Bhopal gas tragedy,the conference will be a broad palette for documentors and historians.

Says Rama Lakshmi,a journalist with the Washington Post and a member of OHAI,“It is a surprise that India,which takes pride in its deep-rooted oral traditions and culture,took so long to allow oral history to establish itself as a discipline.” Lakshmi says suspicions among established historians about oral history remain,and work was happening by Indians in oral history but in separate silos. Now,all of them would have a forum. What oral history does is acknowledge that history is fluid and we need to accept and celebrate that.

Lucknow-based Pramod Srivastava,Chairman of OHAI,says the conference has more meaning in the digital age and increasing democratisation of the virtual space. “ In due course,it will give subaltern historians independence from sole dependence upon folklore,folk tales and so on,for writing history of the people. An oral historian may also document their remotest subjects through video-conferencing and archive it digitally for centuries to come. The availability of such archives online will help oral historians worldwide.”

While in the US and the UK,oral historians gained ground several decades ago by exploring hidden or suppressed histories of marginalised communities,tribes and original inhabitants,it had a radical and often subversive tone. Two international oral historians of repute will be among the participants at OHAI. One of them is Alessandro Portelli,an Italian scholar who has highlighted Nazi killings in Rome,as well as the suppression of killings of leading trade union activists by bringing to light memories of survivors. The other prominent participant is Czech scholar,Miroslav Vanek,currently the President of the International Oral History Association.

Isn’t there concern that memory or hearsay can be subjective ? Indira Chowdhury,Vice-President of OHAI,who has established Centre of Public History at Srishti in Bangalore,says,“Even what is in the archives can be deeply contested. Documents,too,are written by somebody and documents,too,engender prejudices. I think what is important about oral history is precisely its subjectivity and there are ways in which historians can use interpretative frameworks that deal with subjectivity instead of turning away from it.”

Seema Chishti

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